US firm on new recruits for Nato

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The Independent Online

Central Europe Correspondent

Nato was determined to take in new members from former Warsaw Pact countries and would do so despite strong Russian objections, Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, said yesterday.

Speaking in Prague, he said Nato enlargement was on track and that those hoping to come on board would not be kept "in the waiting-room for ever". At the same time, he insisted Russia was not to be excluded from what he hoped would evolve into an undivided Europe and that it too had a "positive contribution" to make to the continent's security.

His remarks came as Nato's Secretary-General, Javier Solana, spent a day trying to put the alliance's case in Moscow, where there is fierce opposition to enlargement. Tomorrow Mr Christopher will seek to reduce Russian anxiety in meetings with President Yeltsin and other officials.

While stressing the desire not to isolate Moscow, Mr Christopher said the integration of Central Europe into Western structures such as Nato and the European Union would neither determine nor be determined by events in Russia. He was critical of what he termed a "dark vision of the future" presented by the Russian parliament, which last week voted in favour of reconstituting the Soviet Union. "History must not be reversed. No nation in Europe should ever again be consigned to a buffer-zone between great powers, or relegated to another nation's sphere of interest."

Mr Christopher's words of reassurance were well received by his Czech hosts and the foreign ministers of 11 other Central and East European countries who had flown to Prague to hear them. Although some would have liked him to have gone further - outlining a timetable for Nato admission - they were relieved to hear that no delays were envisaged.

Having produced a study on the "how" and "why" of enlargement last year, Nato members are this year considering the questions of "who" and "when", with answers expected to be forthcoming at a meeting in December.

Mr Christopher did not specify which countries were likely to join first, but they are widely believed to be Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

The prospect of seeing its former vassal states joining the old Nato enemy has horrified many in Russia. President Yeltsin has even said that enlargement could ignite "the flame of war" across Europe.