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NATO summit begins to crack hard nuts in Bucharest
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09:12, April 03, 2008

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NATO kicked off here on Wednesday evening its biggest summit in history to discuss thorny issues of enlargement and its role in Afghanistan.

Heads of government and state from NATO's 26 members gathered in Romania's Parliament Palace for a working dinner to start the three-day summit.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will join them on Thursday as a guest.

A heated discussion is expected on whether to launch the membership action plan (MAP) at the summit for Ukraine and Georgia.

U.S. President George W. Bush strongly insists that the summit, his final one before leaving office, start the MAP, the gateway leading to NATO membership in five to ten years, for the two former Soviet republics.

His call would meet opposition from Germany, France and some other smaller nations for fear that the move could further strain relations with Russia.

Furthermore, they would like to shelve the plan until after a new U.S. president takes office next year.

Russia, an opponent to NATO expansion towards its western borders, strongly objects to the possible NATO membership for the two countries.

NATO spokesman James Appathurai declined Wednesday to comment at a press conference on reports that the military bloc might not make a decision until 2010.

"It's safe to say there's a range of views on this issue," he said, "When the allies take a position, it will be a unified position."

The summit intends to take Croatia, Albania and Macedonia as NATO members, but Macedonia's bid was overshadowed as Athens has threatened to veto its entry over an unsettled dispute about the name of the former Yugoslav republic.

Despite that other NATO members want to accept Macedonia, there is no sign so far that Greece would change its position that no solution, no invitation.

Another thorny issue facing the NATO summit centers around Afghanistan.

The alliance has had difficulty in mobilizing enough troops in Afghanistan to fight Islamist insurgents as member states are reluctant to contribute extra troops.

Bush urged his European allies to send more troops as France, Poland and host nation Romania do.

"We expect our NATO allies to shoulder the burden necessary to succeed," Bush said after talks with Romanian President Traian Basescu.

The United States has currently deployed 28,000 troops in war-torn Afghanistan and is expected to increase over the summer to 32,000.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (L) and Romania's President Traian Basescu walk before a news conference at Cotroceni Presidential palace in Bucharest April 1, 2008. Romania's capital Bucharest will host NATO Summit on April 2-4, 2008.

Security is tight around the summit as Romania mobilized thousands of police officers, security guards, fighter jets and snipers to safeguard the biggest international event the country has ever hosted. Romania joined NATO in 2004.

A main street in Bucharest from the airport to the Parliament Palace has been blocked, schools and offices in the city closed and protests kept away.

Homeless people, stray dogs and protestors have been cleared around the venue.


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