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Gates Cites Importance of Europe Visit

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT, Oct. 10, 2008 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today his five-day trip to southeastern and central Europe was important to allies in the region and to relations among NATO nations.

The secretary’s first stop was in Kosovo, where he was the first defense secretary since 2001 to visit the Americans who are a part of NATO’s Kosovo Force. He also became the first U.S. cabinet official to visit the nation since it declared independence in February.

The secretary visited with National Guardsmen of the 110th Enhanced Maneuver Brigade. The unit has Guardsmen from Missouri and six other states. Young soldiers explained what they do to help maintain calm in the newly independent nation -- taking the pulse of the population and even vaccinating sheep among the tasks they perform. The 1,400 men and women of the brigade are doing an excellent job in a challenging place, the secretary said.

Gates also met with Kosovar leaders. “It was helpful to the Kosovars, and I certainly enjoyed the opportunity to spend some time with our National Guardsmen who were there doing such an incredible job,” the secretary said in an interview with reporters traveling with him.

Gates went from Kosovo to Macedonia, where he participated in a southeastern Europe defense ministers conference. While there, he met with his Ukraine counterpart and expressed America’s support for NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. He also spoke to the defense ministers of Montenegro and Macedonia about recognizing Kosovo. Both nations did so yesterday.

Gates also encouraged the Macedonians to work with Greece to resolve their differences over the fact that Macedonia also is the name of a Greek province. He said he told Macedonian officials to be “as creative as they could and forward-leaning as possible … so we can try and get their NATO membership done at the foreign ministers meeting in December.”

The trip sent the signal to the nations and people of the region that the United States is concerned about them and values them as allies, the secretary said.

Finally, Gates traveled to Budapest for a NATO defense ministers conference. Afghanistan was the main point of discussion at the meetings, but the ministers also spoke about Russia’s invasion of Georgia, NATO headquarters reform and membership action plans.

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Robert M. Gates

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Special Report: Travels With Gates

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