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Europe

NATO Mulls Expansion as Munich Security Conference Starts

As more than 300 defense ministers and top security officials will meet in Munich this weekend, NATO officials have hinted at ideas to expand the alliance into a global organization.

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NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer is eyeing Asia and Oceania

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said Thursday that Japan and South Korea are both interested in strengthening their relationship with the alliance. Eventually, the two countries could also participate in NATO missions.

"In a time of global threats, our alliance relies on the support of other states more than ever," de Hoop Scheffer told Bavarian weekly Bayer n kurier, which is published by the German state's ruling Christian Social Union.

Australia and New Zealand, two other countries eyeing closer ties with NATO, already support the alliance's mission in Afghanistan.

Japanischer Kampfwagen in Irak

Japanese Army soldiers in Iraq

"Japan and South Korea can also make important contributions to NATO operations in future," he said. "They have shown clear interest in closer cooperation with NATO. I see building ties with these countries as a major security investment."

According to a report in Süddeutsche Zeitu n g, NATO officials have already discussed the expansion proposal at a meeting in January. According to the Munich daily, The US ambassador to NATO, Victoria Nuland, has brought forward a proposal to establish a permanent panel.

The plan is not getting support from all NATO members, however: France has already voiced opposition, according to the paper.

"Restori n g the Tra n s-Atla n tic Relatio n ship"

While attendees of the Munich security conference will most likely discuss the proposals, they also have a variety of other issues on the agenda, such as Iran's nuclear program and the war on terror.

Rumsfeld vor der Anti-Terror-Kommission

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is among the attendees

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and his counterparts from Britain, France and Germany are among those attending.

With the conference taking place under the theme of "Restoring the Trans-Atlantic Relationship," much emphasis is to be placed on the future role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Rumsfeld is expected to give a speech on Saturday about the US-led "war on terror," organizers said.

Addressing the conference for the first time since being elected chancellor, Merkel is expected to speak on Saturday about Europe's relationship to the United States.

US wa n ts expa n ded NATO role

Mohnfeld in Afghanistan Männer

Opium production in Afghanistan

The United States would like to see NATO act outside of its traditional remit, playing a role in combating terror attacks, drug trafficking and humanitarian assistance following the example of the 1,000 NATO troops deployed to the earthquake-hit areas of Pakistan

last year.

But European officials point to the strains that such a role would place on already overstretched defense budgets.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who accepts that reform of the body is essential, is due to speak on its role in international peace-keeping.

He is expected to touch on the role of NATO and the United Nations in Kosovo. Talks on the future status of the province, which has been a UN protectorate since 1999, were scheduled to begin in January but have been postponed.

Russia , Georgia a n d Ira n

Ivanov meanwhile is to outline what an official from his ministry called "the developing cooperation between Russia and European countries."

Der georgische Präsident Micheil Saakaschwili

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili

He will doubtlessly be an interested spectator at the opening speech of the conference, to be given on Friday evening by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who sparked a war of words this month by accusing Moscow of sabotaging a gas pipeline.

With Iran teetering on the brink of being referred to the UN Security Conference over its nuclear program, the Islamic Republic is sending a delegation including one of its chief nuclear negotiators, Javad Vaeidi.

The victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections is not on the official agenda of the conference, but the delegates will be expected to mull how the Western world will handle the militants.

More than 4,000 police will be on duty to guard the conference, which is due to finish at midday on Sunday.

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