US confident of NATO nod to Georgia, Ukraine: official

The United States is confident that Georgia and Ukraine will become members of the NATO military alliance and sees growing support in Europe for that prospect, a top US administration official said Monday.

Russia's recognition of Georgian breakaway regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia has increased backing for expansion of the 26-member alliance, the official said as US Vice President Dick Cheney held talks with Italian leaders here.

"There may be debates about timing, conditions and so forth, but if anything what has happened in Georgia has probably broadened support within the alliance for the proposition that eventually they ought to be members of NATO," he said on condition of anonymity.

Cheney last week vowed Washington's support for Baku, Tbilisi and Kiev during a whistle-stop tour of the region, and urged NATO to unite in order to ward off a return of "line-drawing" in Europe.

He held talks at the weekend with political and business leaders at a conference in Italy -- including Israeli President Shimon Peres, former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, and top world oil executives.

The US vice president arrived Sunday in Rome for talks with Italy's president and prime minister as part of a bid to garner support among Washington's European allies for a stronger stance against Russia after its five-day war with Georgia last month.

"It is not just a US problem, all of Europe has a stake in how this is handled and whether or not these sovereign independent states remain free and independently sovereign states," the official said.

"I think it will get resolved. The resolution that was adopted at the Bucharest summit that said Georgia and Ukraine will become members of NATO represents the thinking of most of our NATO allies."

At its summit in Bucharest in April, NATO refused to grant Ukraine and Georgia "Membership Action Plan" (MAP) status after French and German opposition, though leaders agreed on a statement saying "that these countries will become members of NATO."

Russia has opposed inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine, saying that NATO expansion and its support of a planned US anti-missile system in the Czech Republic and Poland is a "strategic error."

The official reiterated the US view that an expanded NATO would pose no threat to Russia, and vowed that the United States wants a good rapport with Russia despite soaring tensions over Moscow's action in Georgia.

"We are still very interested in having normal relations with Russia. That hasn't changed. That is a long term proposition, but obviously we are not happy with what has happened in Georgia."

Cheney met Sunday with Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who has urged Russia to "reexamine" its freeze on relations with NATO. Moscow last month said it would halt military cooperation as relations between Russia and the West deteriorated over the conflict in Georgia.

The US vice president meets Tuesday with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has a warm personal relationship with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and hopes to play a mediating role between Moscow and Europe.

[Source: AFP, Rome, 08Sep08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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