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NATO Secretary-General hails "practical results" of Russia-NATO Council

MOSCOW, May 13 (AFP) - NATO Secretary General George Robertson on Tuesday hailed a successful first year for a Russia-NATO Council which he said had achieved "important practical results" since drawing up its agenda in Rome in May 2002.

Russia and the Atlantic alliance had worked together on "an agenda of solid concrete and productive cooperation," Robertson said after the first working session of the council, which met in the Russian capital for the first time.

The NATO official also held Kremlin talks with President Vladimir Putin, during which he condemned Monday's suicide bomb attack on a government building in Chechnya in which at least 54 people died.

"This event has further convinced us that we must fight more strongly against terrorism," Robertson told Putin, as quoted by the Interfax news agency.

Areas in which cooperation between Russia and its former Cold War adversary has improved include the campaign against terrorism, peacekeeping operations and the evaluation of threats of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, Robertson said after the working session.

In particular, theatre anti-missile defence was "maybe the flagship programme in the NATO-Russia council," he said.

"About a year and a half ago this was regarded as one of the most divisive issues. Since then we have taken into account the propositions of Russia, the United States and the European Union on the subject."

Flanked by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov, Robertson noted that "NATO and Russia need one another more than at any time."

Moscow is hoping that the meeting of the ambassadors of the 19 NATO members and its own representative will consolidate its ties with the Atlantic Alliance.

The council was created in Rome in May last year and has previously always met in Brussels.

The talks are expected to pave the way for a meeting at foreign minister level scheduled for Madrid next month.

The Moscow meeting dwelt at length on the situation in Afghanistan, which Robertson described as a subject of worldwide concern.

NATO "can help the stabilisation force in Kabul, and it will be doing more to help Germany and Canada when they are heading the force next June. There is a fear that a new outbreak of violence could spill in the region," Robertson said.

Although Iraq did not feature specifically on the agenda, Robertson noted that the Atlantic alliance had "recovered more quickly from the bruising discussions on Iraq" that have damaged other international bodies.

Foreign Minister Ivanov said the Russia-NATO Council's objective should be to "achieve a security architecture of the Euro-Atlantic type," with a stress on multilateral arrangements.

However "the priority must repose with the United Nations, which has a central role in ensuring world security," he said.

Ivanov voiced concern at the continuing delay in ratification of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, "and the deployment of armed forces in new NATO member states."

His comments appeared to target the Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which cannot be admitted to the CFE treaty until it has been ratified by its original signatories, but which have signed up to join the Atlantic alliance, possibly by 2004.

If the revised CFE treaty is not ratified by May 2004, "a gap could appear between geopolitical reality and arms control norms in Europe," Ivanov said.

Robertson noted, however, that the Baltic states, along with Slovenia which is in a similar position, had expressed willingness to sign up to the CFE treaty in its revised form.

The NATO official was due to fly later to Georgia, to be followed by visits to Armenia and Azerbaijan.

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