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Europe

Rice 'Clears Air' over CIA Row in Brussels

European ministers relieved some of the transatlantic tension of the CIA affair with Rice over dinner Wednesday night. On Thursday, NATO agreed to expand the Afghanistan mission.

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Rice at NATO, which approved an expansion of the Afghanistan force

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared to have cleared the air Thursday over the CIA secret prisons row, as she held talks at NATO on the last day of a European tour clouded by the affair.

"It was a good discussion," said NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, referring to a dinner Wednesday night gathering rice with her NATO and EU colleagues. "I think it cleared the air. Secretary Rice made a strong intervention."

NATO ministers then agreed on Thursday to expanding the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan into the south of the country in 2006. At the moment, 9,000 troops, currently under Italian command, serve as peackeepers in Kabul and the mostly peaceful north and west of the country.

Around 20,000 American forces are hunting Islamic militants in the south and east of Afghanistan, that don't answer to ISAF. At the beginning of 2006, 6,000 new NATO troops will arrive in Afghanistan in order to expand the peacekeeping operation.

EU ministers satisfied

The force expansion was expected, and took back seat to transatlantic tension over CIA activities in Europe that greeted Rice on stops in Berlin and Brussels during her brief European trip. A number of European ministers indicated that a closed-door dinner Wednesday evening had eased their concerns over the allegations the CIA used European airports during the transport of terror suspects to covert prison facilities or countries where they might be tortured.

"European ministers voiced their concerns that there should not be a different interpretation of international law," said Germany's Frank-Walter Steinmeier, arriving for a day of NATO talks.

But Wednesday evening's dinner was "very satisfactory for all of us," he said, adding that the talks were "open."

A clarification, not a shift

Mihail Kogalniceanu Luftwaffenstützpunkt

No public denial over secret prisons from Rice

Rice arrived in Brussels after stops in Germany, Romania and Ukraine. Her last stop also risked being her most difficult, specifically because the European Union's British presidency had asked for formal clarification.

In an attempt to preempt pressure in Brussels, Rice made a statement on the torture issue shortly before arriving in Brussels Wednesday afternoon.

Specifically Rice said that Washington's obligations under an international convention prohibiting cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment "extend to US personnel wherever they are, whether they are in the US or outside the US."

"It is also US policy that authorized interrogation will be consistent with US obligations under the Convention Against Torture, which prohibit cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment," she said in Kiev. "Our people wherever they are, are operating under US law and US international obligations."

An aide to Rice said her remarks marked "a clarification of policy, not a shift of policy."

Talks very useful

On Thursday she made no comment as she arrived for the NATO talks.

But European ministers who spoke to reporters all gave the impression that the issue had been clarified. Slovak Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan said the dinner with Rice had been "very useful."

Flaggen der Europäischen Union und der Vereinigten Staaten

And everyone is happy

"Very satisfied," said Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot, who had been one of the most concerned before the talks, when asked if he was happy with Rice's explanations.

"All said they were satisfied with the explanations that were given" by Rice, said Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht told journalists late Wednesday, though stressing that nothing much new had been said at the dinner.

A US official said Rice had started a "dialogue" with European counterparts on the CIA prison row, adding that there was "no table thumping" at a dinner to clear the air.

Not risking 'antagonizing' the US

"There was no posturing, fiery denunciations, table thumping, playing to the gallery or anything like that. It was a serious discussion of the issues," said the senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "This discussion we're going to have with Europeans is going to go on, but it is now a dialogue."

But some critics say that European officials are soft-pedaling the issue to try to avoid a new breach with the U.S. and also to hide their own roles in the issue.

A German official involved in foreign policy told DW-WORLD last week that "ittook almost a month for EU countries to wake up and begin questioning what has been in the papers and in the minds of the public for weeks," adding that "people didn’t want to antagonize the Americans. Now it looks like we might have to."

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