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NATO Defense Minister Meetings Begin in Italy

By John D. Banusiewicz
American Forces Press Service

TAORMINA, Italy, Feb. 9, 2006 – NATO defense ministers, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, are meeting here to discuss the alliance's continuing transformation, its mission in Afghanistan and other issues.

The informal meetings today and tomorrow are a prelude to NATO's summit this fall in Riga, Latvia.

"That summit should be a pivotal moment in the continuing evolution of the alliance, and we should use it to ensure that NATO is fit to respond to the political and operational challenges and opportunities of the 21st century," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in welcoming participants today.

"Our meetings this year, culminating in the summit," he continued, "must enable the alliance to continue to remain a flexible and effective instrument to safeguard the security of its members and to promote security and stability ever more broadly and widely."

Two major events this year, the secretary-general said, symbolize and embody NATO's new approach: the expansion of the alliance's International Security Assistance Force into Afghanistan's southern provinces and the completion of work to establish the NATO Response Force.

"Both these events are critical to our present and our future roles," he said, "and our meeting here will allow us to consider both in depth."

Italian Defense Minister Antonio Martino, who serves as host for the meetings, noted the changes he's seen in the alliance in his five years as Italy's top defense official.

"Transformation means evolution," he said. "It means introducing new tools to accomplish new tasks, such as peacekeeping, crisis management (and) combating terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It means reacting promptly to a wider range of contingencies."

Martino added that NATO's transformation also mean strengthening the alliance's relationships with Russia and the Mediterranean Dialogue countries: Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. Meetings of both the NATO-Russia Council and the Mediterranean Dialogue are scheduled tomorrow.

"The ability to transform and meet new challenges is perhaps the most outstanding accomplishment of our alliance, which has successfully faced unprecedented situations and has seen its importance increase - evolving from an alliance of collective defense to an organization of collective security," Martino said.

Noting that Italy has increasingly invested its resources and taken upon itself an important share of NATO's new responsibilities, Martino said, with more troops deployed today than it has ever deployed before. Italy commands NATO operations in the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and in Kosovo, as well as operations for the European Union.

Martino stressed the need to preserve and strengthen NATO while adapting the alliance to the requirements of a changing security environment. He recalled that while serving as Italy's foreign minister in 1955, his father helped to lay the foundation for cooperation among European nations at a conference here.

"I hope that today Taormina will once again be the setting for a fruitful meeting, helping us to prepare successfully for the future NATO summit in Riga," he said.

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