NATO Ministers agree to new Russia talks

10:04, 03 December 2008
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The NATO-Russia Council will meet on an informal basis

NATO foreign ministers agreed to gradually resume talks with Russia that were frozen after Moscow`s August invasion of Georgia, The Wall Street Journal reported.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the NATO-Russia Council will meet on an informal basis to explore areas of agreement and disagreement. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the talks with Russia would start at a low level, adding that "this is not business as usual."

The two-day North Atlantic Treaty Organization session also took up the possibility of eventual expansion to Ukraine and Georgia. The U.S. and its supporters have split with Germany and some other NATO countries over whether to specify that the two countries can eventually join the alliance without having to enter the formal and politically charged entry process, known as a Membership Action Plan.

In April, at a NATO summit, Germany blocked U.S. efforts to start Georgia and Ukraine on the MAP process, arguing the two ex-Soviet states weren`t ready and the move could provoke Russia. A compromise looked possible Tuesday.

Tuesday`s talks, however, focused mainly on pressure for NATO to do more to combat pirates off the coast of Somalia. International warships patrol the area off the Horn of Africa and have created a security corridor under a U.S.-led initiative, but attacks haven`t slowed.

The meeting came as NATO reported that an Italian destroyer, Luigi Durand de la Penne, had prevented the hijacking of five merchant vessels earlier Tuesday in the Gulf of Aden.

"Ministers shared a view that we need a much more comprehensive approach, led by the U.N. Security Council, especially regarding the legal issues covering piracy," Mr. De Hoop Scheffer told reporters.

Also on Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council renewed for a year its authorization for countries to use military force against pirates operating off Somalia. NATO already has a mission in the area, while the European Union is set to start an air and naval operation off Somalia on Dec. 8. The operation is expected to involve five to six ships at any given time, plus maritime surveillance aircraft.

Pirates have hijacked about 40 ships this year, including a Ukrainian freighter loaded with 33 battle tanks seized in September and a Saudi tanker carrying $100 million of crude that was captured Nov. 15.

The U.N. Security Council mandate limits international warships to escorting World Food Program ships and conducting antipiracy patrols. It doesn`t allow for the boarding of ships seized by the pirates or the rescue of hostages.

Officials said the ministers would likely discuss Wednesday whether to deploy a follow-up antipiracy mission after the current force leaves the region in mid-December.

NATO has four warships and an oiler on station, charged with escorting cargo ships bearing U.N. human humanitarian aid to Somalia. The alliance has escorted about 30,000 tons of aid to Mogadishu.

NATO nations also are worried about escalating tensions between India and Pakistan. After last week`s attacks in Mumbai, the alliance is concerned that Pakistan`s resolve to combat pro-Taliban fighters on its border with Afghanistan may weaken.

More than 60,000 Western troops are battling Afghanistan`s Taliban insurgency, and Pakistan`s security forces have been cooperating in efforts to cut off infiltration routes through its lawless northwest regions that are used by insurgents as havens.

The Wall Street Journal

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