US buys out Ukraine's nuclear arsenal: Nato summit puts central Europe on track to join alliance

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UKRAINE has agreed to lay down its nuclear arms, Bill Clinton announced yesterday. The deal, negotiated with the US and Russia, is a triumph for the President, who is seeking to boost security in Europe through new agreements linking East and West.

The announcement came after a summit of Nato leaders here, which agreed a new US initiative to link former Soviet bloc states to the alliance. But differences about the Bosnian conflict hung over the meeting.

'This is a hopeful and historic breakthrough,' the US President said of the Ukrainian decision. It means that the world's third largest nuclear power will voluntarily disarm itself of 1,500 formerly Soviet warheads and 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Ukraine's missiles will be dismantled in Russia, which will extract enriched uranium from the warheads and return it to Ukraine as fuel rods for nuclear power in a deal worth dollars 1bn (pounds 670m). Ukraine will also receive dollars 175m in US aid to dismantle the weapons, and dollars 155m in economic aid, US officials said. This is far less than the billions demanded by the Ukrainian parliament.

The deal will be sealed at a meeting in Moscow on Friday, and Mr Clinton is likely to visit Ukraine's President Leonid Kravchuk in Kiev tomorrow. Ukraine will not get the security guarantees it had asked for from the West. But if it participates in the new Nato Partnership for Peace scheme (PFP), it will gain the right of consultation with the alliance.

The alliance leaders yesterday gave their assent to PFP, a US initiative to create political and military ties between Nato and Eastern Europe. It is linked to the possibility of one day admitting new Nato members.

British sources confirmed that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic headed the list of those who were on track for membership, although no date was mentioned. Accession would occur through an 'evolutionary' process, according to a declaration Nato leaders will sign today.

Mr Clinton said the programme was designed to prevent a new dividing line across Europe. 'It enables us to work towards the enlargement of Nato when other countries are capable of fulfilling their Nato responsibilities,' he said. 'It enables us to do it in a way that gives us the time to reach out to Russia and to these other nations of the former Soviet Union.'

Russia has opposed the enlargement of Nato, but US and alliance officials hope that leaving accession open for the moment will persuade Moscow that it does not pose a threat. The deal with Ukraine should also calm Russian fears about security, Nato sources said. Mr Clinton will explain PFP to President Boris Yeltsin when they meet on Friday. Russia is eligible to enter.

Mr Clinton's visit seems to have reassured America's European allies. 'I warmly welcome the renewed commitment of the United States,' John Major said.

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