Nato to issue Eastern bloc invitations

Invitations to Central and East European states to join the Nato alliance will be issued at a summit meeting in Madrid on 8-9 July, Nato foreign ministers announced in Brussels yesterday. Nato also confirmed it foresaw no need to base nuclear weapons on the territory of new members, although the communique stopped short of making a formal guarantee.

Foreign ministers from Nato's 16 nations were meeting at one of the more important recent sessions of the North Atlantic Council (NAC) to fix the date for the summit, discuss their relations with Russia and confirm arrangements for the Nato-led peacekeeping operation in Bosnia. Today they are joined by the Russian Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, in the North Atlantic Co-operation Council (NACC) - "sixteen plus one".

Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary are the most likely countries to be in the first wave to join Nato on or before its 50th anniversary in April 1999. Slovenia and Romania are also candidates, though the former is more likely, as it forms a land bridge between Italy and Hungary.

The declaration on nuclear weapons will go some way to reassuring Russia about Nato's expansion, though Russia remains publicly opposed to it. With short-range nuclear missiles and artillery withdrawn from Nato Europe, and the increased reliance of Britain, France and the US on long range submarine- and air-launched nuclear weapons, there is no military reason to put nuclear weapons into the territory of new Nato members.

Nato repeated last week's call from the London conference on Bosnia for the local parties to implement last year's Dayton peace agreement in full. Western leaders feel they have dragged their feet on implementing arms- control provisions and handing over indicted war criminals. Last week's London conference thus placed great stress on "conditionality" - making further aid dependent on compliance.

Nato also issued a statement deploring the decision of the government in neighbouring Serbia to annul the opposition victories in recent municipal elections. It called on the Serbian government "to respect the democratic will of the people by reversing that decision".

The Nato meeting confirmed that the 31,000-strong Stabilisation Force, S-For, which will take over from the Peace Implementation Force, I-For, on 20 December, "will retain the same unity of command, robust rules of engagement, enforcement authority and status of forces that has made I- For a success".

S-For "will contribute to a secure environment necessary for the consolidation of peace by deterring or, if necessary, halting a resumption of hostilities. It will also provide time for political reconciliation and economic reconstruction to gain momentum."

Some 17 non-Nato countries had also said they would send troops to join S-For. Nato said the emphasis of international efforts "must continue to move increasingly to the civilian aspects of the peace agreement".

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