France blocks Nato bid to create a global terror force

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Plans to boost Nato's co- operation with countries such as Australia and Japan in an effort to forge a partnership against terrorism have been blocked by France.

The moves were to have been at the centre of a summit of the alliance's leaders to be held in Riga this month. Nato officials now accept that only a loosely worded pledge to increase contacts with partners in Asia and Australasia will be included in the communiqué, which will be agreed by President George Bush and other leaders in the Latvian capital.

The French opposition comes as a blow to the US, which spearheaded the proposal and which would like to see regular Nato "forums" with countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea. But while the idea won support from traditional allies of Washington such as the UK, France has made it clear that it opposes a move it sees as part of a campaign to extend US influence.

Paris has always been suspicious of Nato because of America's domination of the organisation. In an article in Le Figaro this week, France's Defence Minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, spelt out her country's opposition to efforts to expand Nato's global reach.

She praised the contribution of Australia and Japan to peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan and said she was willing to improve the "practical arrangements" surrounding their military operations but added that this must be done "without changing the fundamental nature of Nato which must, in my eyes, remain an euro-atlantic military alliance". She argued: "The development of a 'global partnership' would riskdiluting the natural solidarity between Europeans and North Americans ... and above all, send a bad political message: that of a campaign, at the intiative of the West, against those who do not share its conceptions."

The alliance already operates a Partnership for Peace programme with 20 countries, including several from the former Soviet bloc. But neither New Zealand nor Australia have formal partnerships with Nato though both have troops in Afghanistan. Japan has a naval mission in the Indian Ocean providing support for US-led military operations in Afghanistan.

Nato officials have not abandoned the hope of having more regular consultations with non-alliance countries that contribute to the Afghanistan mission.