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NATO Invites New Members, Backs Bush On Missile Defense

NATO summit leaders meeting in Romania have invited two Balkan countries to join the alliance, but say the time is not right for Ukraine and Georgia. As VOA's Paula Wolfson reports from the summit, alliance leaders also showed their support for Afghanistan, and U.S. plans to put a missile shield in Europe.

It was the most emotional moment of the summit, as the presidents and prime ministers of Albania and Croatia took seats at the conference table with other NATO leaders.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer literally opened the door and showed them the way.

"You all come from a region that has been affected by terrible conflicts until only a few years ago, and that is why your membership has special significance," said Scheffer.

A third Balkan nation - Macedonia - also met the criteria for membership, but final action has been put off until it settles a name dispute with Greece. Macedonia has the same name as a region in Greece, and the Greek government is demanding a change.

U.S. President George W. Bush - the longest serving NATO leader at the summit - spoke for all the members of the alliance and urged a resolution.

"The name issue needs to be resolved quickly so Macedonia can be welcomed into NATO as soon as possible," he said.

The Macedonian delegation left the summit, but for Albania and Croatia this was a time for rejoicing. Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha addressed the alliance.

"For me this is a miracle! This is a miracle of freedoms! Thank you very much," he said.

At the same time, there was bad news for two former Soviet republics hoping to be put on the path to NATO membership. President Bush had lobbied hard on behalf of Georgia and Ukraine. Alliance members said they want to bring them in someday, but the time is not yet right.

During a session with reporters, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried to cast the decision in the best possible light, saying the alliance showed its intention to offer a membership action plan to Ukraine and Georgia at some point in the future.

"If there was an open door, I think there is now a wide open door," she said.

Russia vehemently opposed bringing the two into NATO, and alliance members Germany and France voiced reservations, blocking the necessary consensus.

Rice says Russia does not have a veto in the process. And she points to the summit statement endorsing missile defense as a sign the alliance is not bowing to pressure from Moscow. She calls the statement a "breakthrough."

"Now it is clearly understood in the alliance that the challenges of the 21st century, the threats of the 21st century make it necessary to have missile defense that can defend the countries of Europe," she said.

The endorsement was a big victory for the Bush administration, which also hailed signals of support from the summit for the NATO military operation in Afghanistan.

Several nations announced plans to send more troops or aid. France said it would deploy an extra battalion in eastern Afghanistan, freeing up U.S. Marines to serve alongside Canadian troops in the troubled south.

NATO members got a chance to assess progress in Afghanistan during a closed-door session with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He vows the Afghan people will do their part.

"It is the responsibility now of the Afghan people, of their government, to fulfill in full the commitments that we have made to ourselves and also to our partners in the international community," he said.

U.N. Secretary General Ban ki-Moon also attended the session, along with representatives of the European Union and several non-NATO countries involved in military or aid operations.