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German NATO battalion receives official welcome in Lithuania

Seven months after NATO agreed to increase troops in Eastern Europe, a German-led battalion has arrived in Lithuania. President Grybauskaite officially greeted the troops alongside German Defense Minister von der Leyen.

Lithuania's President hailed the arrival of the troops on Tuesday, saying the increased NATO military deployment sends a strong message of unity.

"Never before has Lithuania hosted military forces of such size and integrity. It sends a very clear and important message to all that NATO stands strong and united," President Dalia Grybauskaite said during a ceremony to welcome a German battalion in the central town of Rukla.

"The NATO deterrence protects peace," she added. Referencing Russia, Grybauskaite spoke of an "ongoing military build-up" and "aggressive actions" in the region.

In January, the German army started sending military vehicles, including 30 tanks, by train to Lithuania along with 450 troops.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who attended the ceremony, said the deployment of military tanks and other equipment signified that Lithuania was not alone.

Von der Leyen also said she was confided that the United States would remain committed to NATO despite US President Donald Trump's statements on the defense alliance.

German-led battalion

Germany's presence as a leader in the NATO deployment is also "symbolic and very important," Grybauskaite told German news agency DPA ahead of the ceremony.

The stationing of German troops in Eastern Europe is a particularly sensitive issue due to the history of the Nazi invasion during World War II and its occupation of the region.

"We understand these concerns," Grybauskaite said. "Which is precisely why we see Germany's decision so favorably."

Germany will lead a NATO battalion of some 1,000 troops as part of the defense alliance's push to increase its presence in three Baltic states that are seen as particularly vulnerable to possible Russian aggression.

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"Germany has made many confessions with respect to the consequences of World War II ... But today we are in the 21st century and it is the responsibility of all of us to reflect on the future of Europe and to preserve the peace and security of Europe for the future," President Grybauskaite said.

Von der Leyen is due to meet with her counterpart, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in Washington on Friday. Her visit comes ahead of a meeting with NATO defense ministers next week and the Munich Security Conference a week after.

rs/rt (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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