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Rice's Troubled Euro Tour Enters Home Stretch

NATO ministers were set Thursday to approve plans to send more peacekeepers to Afghanistan during talks with Condoleezza Rice, overshadowed by the row over alleged CIA prison flights.

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Condoleezza Rice's European tour took her to NATO HQ in Brussels on Thursday

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made ready to embark on the last leg of her four-country European tour Thursday: a formal NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels.

Rice's European tour has been dogged by controversy over alleged CIA transports and secret prisons in Europe. She has repeatedly attempted to defuse the row with public declarations renouncing torture and abuse.

Afghanistan tops agenda

The main focus of Thursday's talks is expected to be a deal to expand the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) into Afghanistan's more volatile south, where the US is keen for NATO to ease pressure on its stretched forces.

Bundeswehreinsatz in Afghanistan

German ISAF soldier in Afghanistan

NATO, which took command of ISAF in 2003, has extended the force's presence progressively from Kabul into the north and then the west this year. Eventually it is expected to cover the whole of Afghanistan.

But officials conceded it will be difficult to avoid having the CIA debacle cloud debate.

"It's not on the formal agenda, but I would be surprised if it doesn't come up," one NATO official told AFP news service before Rice arrived Wednesday.

Plagued by controversy

Rice arrived in Brussels, home to both NATO and the European Union's main institutions, from a stopover in Kiev. She had previously travelled to Germany and then Romania.

The CIA controversy has plagued the trip from the start. Rice made a statement before heading from Washington underlining US rejection of torture, but keeping silent on alleged secret CIA prisons.

Condoleezza Rice in Berlin Angela Merkel

Merkel (right) with Rice (left) at a press conference in Berlin Tuesday

On a visit to Berlin Tuesday, Rice acknowledged that Washington made a mistake in detaining a German citizen and flying him to Afghanistan for questioning, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters after the talks.

The issue seems likely to resurface in Brussels, notably since British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw -- whose country currently holds the EU presidency -- has written to Rice seeking clarification.

'We operate under US law'

In an apparent attempt to pre-empt pressure in Brussels, Rice made a statement on the torture issue in Kiev.

Specifically, Rice said 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," Rice said. "Our people, wherever they are, are operating under US law and US international obligations."

'Satisfactory' explanation

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

At a meeting late Wednesday, Rice provided explanations about the CIA flights to her European counterparts, who said they were "satisfied," according to Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht.

"All said they were satisfied with the explanations that were given" by Rice, De Gucht told journalists, though stressing that nothing much new had been said at the meeting of NATO and EU foreign ministers.

Focus on Middle East

Thursday's talks at sprawling NATO headquarters on the outskirts of Brussels will start with a breakfast focused on the broader Middle East, of increasing interest to the military alliance.

The NATO gathering will end with bilateral meetings with NATO partners, notably central Asian states, as well as regular talks with Russia and Ukraine.

Kiev would like one day to become a member of both NATO and the EU, but ministers are expected to offer it only "cautious encouragement," with no timetable, diplomats said.

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