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NATO ambassadors agree on details of response force
BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Ambassadors from the 19 members of the NATO alliance agreed Monday on ways to respond better to new threats from terrorists or rogue states.
Officials at NATO headquarters in Brussels said the ambassadors finished a draft agreement on a rapid deployment force of over 20,000 troops. A core group would be able to deploy within a week.
The plan will involve land, sea and air units from Europe and North America. Details will be announced at a larger NATO summit that opens Thursday in the Czech capital Prague.
The ambassadors also held a final, behind-closed-doors meeting on NATO's plan to invite new members from the old communist bloc to join the western alliance.
They didn't say which countries will gain membership to the alliance. But senior officials said there won't be any surprises when the announcement is made Thursday, suggesting the seven front-running candidates will be invited to join in 2004.
They are Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania.
The Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary joined NATO in 1999.
The ambassadors also agreed on measures to modernize NATO's military hardware and better prepare alliance forces for the dangers of the post-Sept. 11 world.
Plans include leasing transport planes so alliance forces can get to trouble spots quickly and developing equipment to guard against radiation, poison-gas, or germ warfare.
Members also want secure communications and jamming gear to ensure enemies cannot listen in on alliance troops; ground surveillance and midair refueling planes; and more precision-guided munitions.
The so-called "Prague capabilities package" is an attempt to narrow the gap between U.S. military might and European forces weakened by years of defense cuts. The plan will be confirmed at the summit.
Britain, France, Norway and Portugal have already announced increases in defense spending. Other nations are expected to follow and have agreed to share weaponry and other equipment to make better use of limited resources.
Monday's meeting did not work out details on prolonging NATO's peacekeeping role in Macedonia beyond a Dec. 15 deadline. Diplomats said the allies will stay in the Balkan country, but would meet again today to look at the details of the extended mission.
NATO must stay because the European Union hasn't agreed with NATO member Turkey on allowing a EU military force to take over in Macedonia and use NATO facilities.
By denying the EU access to NATO planning, Turkey has effectively vetoed the European bloc's efforts to set up a military wing that would eventually include a 60,000-strong rapid reaction force ready for peacekeeping missions.
Turkey says it wants stronger guarantees that such a force would never be used against its interests, particularly in sensitive areas such as Cyprus or the Aegean Sea. Turkey is also pressing the Europeans to open negotiations on its bid for EU membership.
EU defense ministers are scheduled to discuss the impasse Tuesday in Brussels.