U.S. President George W. Bush says Croatia's invitation to join NATO is a sign the Eastern European nation has "overcome war and hardship" and fully embraced democracy.
Speaking Saturday at St. Mark's Square in the capital Zagreb, Mr. Bush assured the Croatian people that should anyone threaten the country, America and NATO would come to their aid so "no one can take your freedom away."
Croatia, along with Albania, was invited to join NATO during the alliance's summit earlier this week in Bucharest.
Mr. Bush thanked Croatia and Albania for their support of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and said their embrace of democracy will show those countries that "freedom is worth fighting for."
The president expressed regret that Macedonia, because of a dispute with Greece about the country's name, did not get an invitation to join NATO at this time. He said as soon as the situation was resolved, Macedonia should be invited "as soon as possible."
Mr. Bush heads to Russia later Saturday for talks with counterpart Vladimir Putin -- the last meeting between the two men as they both prepare to leave office.
Mr. Putin has been a sharp critic of NATO expansion, especially any further movement towards Russia's borders.
Russia also strongly opposes to U.S. plans to deploy an anti-missile defense system in central Europe, describing it as a threat to its security. But the U.S. says the planned system, which won the support of NATO leaders, is aimed at protecting Europe from an attack from the Middle East.
Earlier, NATO and Russia signed a transit deal allowing the shipment of non-lethal freight across Russian territory to alliance forces in Afghanistan.
Some information for this report provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.