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NATO Prepares for 2008 Expansion

President Bush and NATO leaders are expected to discuss the mission in Afghanistan and prospects for further expansion of the alliance when they hold talks in Latvia Wednesday. VOA White House Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, the trans-Atlantic alliance will not add any new members this year but is hoping to expand in 2008.

While NATO's mission in Afghanistan will dominate this summit, there are other issues before the 26-member alliance.

With forces from 11 nations joining the more than 30,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, the alliance is expanding its cooperation with non-members.

Japan, Australia, South Korea, Sweden, and Finland will be invited to train more closely with NATO troops, including special operations forces.

There will be a strategic airlift initiative through which 14 NATO members plus Sweden will have a dedicated fleet of U.S. C-17 aircraft to better transport troops and material.

NATO will launch a program to train military forces in the Middle East in counterterrorism, counterproliferation and peacekeeping operations.

There is also expected to be the launch of a rapid response force with dedicated troops from European members who will be on-call to deploy more quickly to global trouble spots.

After adding Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Slovenia to the alliance in 2002, there will be no new NATO members at this summit.

But U.S. President George Bush says he expects that will change in 2008.

"Today, Croatia, Macedonia, and Albania are all participating in NATO's membership action plan, and the United States supports their aspirations to join the Atlantic alliance," said Mr. Bush.

According to wire reports, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia may be invited at the Riga summit to join the Partnership for Peace, a precursor to NATO membership.

Mr. Bush says the United States believes in NATO membership for all European democracies that are ready to share alliance responsibilities.

That position has drawn concern from Russia, especially as members of the former Soviet Union join an alliance established during the Cold War to check Soviet expansion.

With the Soviet threat now removed, President Bush says continued cooperation between NATO and Russia strengthens common security and advances the cause of peace.

"We recognize that Russia is a vital and important country, and that it is in our interest to increase our cooperation with Russia in areas such as countering terrorism and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction," he added.

Mr. Bush said he supports Ukrainian leaders as they work to curb corruption and promote the rule of law. But as NATO helps new democracies, he says the Latvian summit must not forget those who he says still languish in tyranny.

"Just across the border from here lies the nation of Belarus, a place where peaceful protesters are beaten and opposition leaders are 'disappeared' by the agents of a cruel regime," he said.

Mr. Bush says the vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace includes the people of Belarus and NATO stands with them in their struggle for freedom.