Nato hoists banner in Poland amid a blaze of ceremony

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THE FIRST military exercise under Nato's Partnership for Peace scheme began in Poznan in Poland yesterday. Amid a blaze of ceremony, soldiers from East and West began training together to prepare for joint peace-keeping duties.

The Poles fielded two military bands in the sunshine, each decked out in splendid pinks, blues and reds, one apparently in Polish Lancers' uniforms. The Italians bellowed the name of their regiment each time they presented arms, and the Americans sang marching songs as they left the parade ground. The 35 men from F Company of the Scots Guards, won spontaneous applause for their piper.

The point of the exercise, Co-operative Bridge, say officials, is to ensure that the two sets of forces can work together, initially at platoon level. It is designed as the first step on a road that will eventually see some nations, Poland among them, entering the alliance.

There are 650 military members and 13 countries participating: the hosts, Britain, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, and the United States. The exercise was opened by the Polish Prime Minister, Waldemar Pawlak, and the Supreme Allied Commander, George Joulwan - but not before every national anthem was played.

There seemed no animus towards the Germans (the four veterans of the Polish Secret Army saluted the German national anthem) nor, indeed, much towards Russia. There were Russian officers present yesterday as guests, but none on the exercise or as observers. The exercise has been made as low-key, and as far away from Russia, as possible to avoid offending Moscow's sensibilities.

Most of this is symbol. The German unit, for instance, is drawn from a part of the Federal Republic's forces that is highly unlikely ever to do peace-keeping duties. The exercise was prepared very quickly, with Poland intent on showing that it will do all it can to bring the country rapidly within the alliance. The real point is: Nato is going east.

The briefing manuals for the exercise are explicit. 'Poles: eager to make exercise a success, want to showcase to populace and world, willing to provide most training resources, concerned about cost,' says one. 'Nato: must stress partnership theme, avoid air of superiority, the FIRST PfP exercise.' Another says prominently: 'The exercise planning has to take into account the requirement for visibility to the media and important presence of (distinguished) VIPs and visitors.'

But what is happening is a remarkable event, for the Poles more than anybody else. They have done an excellent job, say Nato officials. The country is independent, its borders are secure and its neighbours are basically friendly. It has the realistic prospect of membership of both the European Union and Nato.