NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has told the 50th General Assembly of the Atlantic Treaty Association in Rome the alliance must play a stronger political role and change its military capability to face new threats.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told the assembly of some 350 delegates NATO is undergoing a full transformation both militarily and politically. He said the alliance must play a stronger global political role and adapt its military capability to the modern-day threats - terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and rogues states.

"Protecting our security today sometimes necessitates addressing the security and threats that arise far from our homes," Mr. Scheffer says. "If we do not tackle these programs at their source, they will end up on our doorstep. Not only in the form of illegal migration, trafficking or terrorism, but also in the form of instability that will inevitably affect us in an increasingly interdependent and globalized world."

NATO is no longer a Euro-centric alliance, Mr. Scheffer said, and will continue to engage in operations outside of its area wherever the need arises. It is for this reason, he added, that NATO forces are in Afghanistan, its naval forces are engaged in an anti-terrorist operation in the Mediterranean Sea and it contributes to the stability of Iraq through training the Iraqi security forces.

The NATO Secretary General also spoke of the political stand-off in the Ukraine, saying that the democratic future and territorial integrity of that country are of direct and vital interest to NATO.

"The situation that came about after the elections should not be characterized as a West versus East rivalry but as an issue of democracy and respect for peoples' will," Mr. Scheffer says. "And whatever different approaches among the Ukrainians the sense of belonging to one nation is very important and it is on that basis that a non-violent democratic solution should be found within the territorial integrity of that country."

The President of the Atlantic Treaty Association, U.S. Ambassador Robert Hunter, said NATO is encouraging Russia to ensure that a free and fair solution emerges from the Ukrainian electoral process.

"This is a decisive moment for Ukraine, economic advance, building a civil society," Mr. Hunter says. "It would be tragic for the people of Ukraine and I think tragic for people all over Europe, including in Russia if somehow this process were short-circuited. This is not just about Ukraine. It's about democracy all over the European space."

NATO's Mr. Scheffer described the alliance's handover of peacekeeping troops in Bosnia to the European Union Thursday as a milestone in its relationship with the European Union. He said it has been an extremely successful operation, which began with 60,000 troops in a period of instability in 1995 and is ending with seven thousand.

He said NATO will continue to maintain a reduced presence in Bosnia to support the country's defense reforms, help to hunt down war crimes suspects and fight against terrorism.

Mr. Scheffer also said that in the Balkans, Kosovo still remains volatile and fragile and that Nato will remain there with its 17,000 troops to secure stability until a political solution is found.

The three-day assembly meeting, which is focused on the future of Euro-Atlantic security, is being attended by presidents of the three Balkan countries which are candidate nations to join the alliance: Albania, Croatia and Macedonia.

"Even as NATO engages further away from home, our engagement in the Balkans is strong and getting stronger," Mr. Scheffer says. "Some have already become members. Three more whose presidents are here today are working to join as well, as we are working with them. We share that goal of Euro-Atlantic integration."

Ambassador Hunter said the role of the alliance has changed from containing the Soviet Union and its Communist allies to building security and democracy in Europe and reaching out beyond Europe's borders. To achieve this, he told the gathering, the Atlantic Treaty Association must play a key role in educating a new generation of people in NATO's 26 member countries.