Nato plan for new North Africa pact

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Nato is preparing to forge new links with five North African and Middle Eastern states because of concern about rising Islamic fundamentalism and weapons proliferation, according to Willy Claes, the alliance Secretary-General.

In an interview with the Independent, Mr Claes stressed that the threat from Islamic fundamentalism was one of the most important challenges facing the West after the end of the Cold War. "We should not underestimate the risks arising from fundamentalism," he said.

"It is our duty to organise, especially with those countries facing this kind of difficulty, a dialogue," said Mr Claes. "I hope that decisions will be taken by the North Atlantic Council in the coming days." He said Nato would "invite several states on a case-by-case basis to start discussions on security items."

Today, Nato ambassadors are due to agree a new dialogue with countries of North Africa and the Middle East, including Egypt, Israel, Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritania. Mauritania was included at the insistence of Spain, which said otherwise it would not allow the inclusion of Israel, a key demand of the United States.

Initially, this would be limited to regular exchanges between governments and officials but the door is deliberately being left open to a wider security co-operation. Nato officials said the scheme could eventually turn into a version of Partnership for Peace, the alliance's scheme for links with eastern Europe. Spain in particular pressed for the new plan, officials say, backed by France and Italy.

Nato is also planning a new ballistic missile defence system to guard against the threat of attack from the Middle East. A top-secret threat assesment by Nato last year warned that several states were getting close to having nuclear weapons and the vehicles to deliver them. French and US officials jointly head a new Nato group on the risks of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

In the European Union, too, there is a new emphasis on the problems of the Mediterranean. On Monday, EU foreign ministers agreed to begin discussions on a customs union with Turkey, a series of "Euro-Med" agreements are being negotiated, and France has made the region one of its top priorities during its chairmanship of the Union.

Mr Claes was careful to emphasise that there was no hostility against Islam itself. "It's neccessary to make a clear distinction between Islam as a religion and the fundamentalists on the other hand," he said.

None the less, the increasing stress on the idea of the threat from Islamic fundamentalists will worry those who believe the West is creating a new bogeyman. The failure of Western organisations like Nato to help the Bosnian Muslims has been widely interpretated in the Middle East as part of a revived hostility in Europe and the US.

Interview, page 12

Leading article, page 18