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In Sweden's far north, a convergence of fighter jets, reindeer, and hurt feelings

'Lapistan,' where NATO is conducting war games, is fictional. But the exercises are testing real-life relations with the Russians as well as the indigenous Sami people.

By Tom Sullivan, Correspondent / June 11, 2009

Stockholm, Sweden

A NATO rapid-reaction force is on a war footing in Swedish Lapland this week.

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Ten countries, 2,000 troops, a strike aircraft carrier, and 50 fighter jets – including the US Air Force's F-15 Eagle – are participating in war games near contested Arctic territories.

Choosing this place for war games reflects the growing strategic importance of the Arctic, which is estimated to contain a quarter of the Earth's oil and gas, say analysts. But the exercises could escalate military tensions with Russia over NATO (read more here) and endanger the livelihood of indigenous people, activists say.

The maneuvers got under way on Monday and will continue into next week. The exercises are based on a fictional conflict in "Lapistan," a revolutionary, oil-rich dictatorship that has attacked a neighboring country.

The mission is to enforce a UN resolution, using mainly air forces based near Sweden's largest northern city, Luleå. The exercise spans a massive land area stretching from Östersund in southern Lapland to the Norwegian border, near the Barents Sea.

Nonaligned Sweden and Finland are participating as members of NATO's Partnership for Peace program.

Heightened tension with Russia

Two years ago, Russia laid stake to 500,000 square miles of the Arctic, brazenly pitching a titanium flag on the Arctic sea bed and preempting counterclaims by Norway, Denmark, Canada, and the US. Just last month, a new security strategy unveiled in Moscow warned of potential military clashes over natural resources near the Russian border.

"These exercises increase the risk of a conflict," says Anna Ek, head of Sweden's Peace and Arbitration Society. "They send out offensive and aggressive signals. Should we really be planning for a conflict with Russia while there is still a window of opportunity for cooperation in the Arctic?"

Following Russia's invasion of Georgia last year, Sweden abandoned earlier plans to scale down its air force.

Erik Lagersen, a spokesman for the Swedish armed forces, says the maneuvers are necessary to develop cooperation routines with NATO (read more recent news about NATO here).