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NATO forum opens in Sofia

Date: 28.04.2006

NATO informal Foreign Ministers meeting in Sofia opened Thursday afternoon amid tight security measures and fears that a nationalist rally against the deployment of US bases in Bulgaria may lead to clashes.

A total of 34 foreign delegations arrived on Thursday in Sofia for the meeting that will take place April 27 to 28. This is the first time that Bulgaria, a member of the alliance since 2004, hosts the forum.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer will chair the meeting, hosted by Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivaylo Kalfin.

In opening the forum Jaap de Hoop Scheffer noted that Bulgaria is struggling with terrible floods and voiced his concern and sympathy.

He stressed the informal nature of the discussions in Sofia, saying that it stands as a bridge to the Riga summit.

He pointed out that special attention will be given to NATO deployment in Afghanistan, where the alliance will soon have 15, 000 troops.

"This is a testimony to our commitment to this country," he said.

NATO is now in a process of expanding ISAF presence into the south of Afghanistan and considers when it would be appropriate to take responsibility for the eastern region too.

In the words of Scheffer in order for the international community to succeed, sustained efforts should be made.

Earlier in the day Scheffer delivered a speech at the 15th anniversary of the Atlantic Club of Bulgaria in the margins of the Sofia ministerial.

"The club has been an agent for change since its establishment in 1991, at the forefront in encouraging Atlantic values and in garnering political and public support for Bulgaria's NATO membership," he said.

"Following the end of the Cold War and Bulgaria's accession, NATO and the Atlantic Club have the same role to play, namely to sustain the Transatlantic relationship, safeguard NATO and spread the values of democracy and human rights and strengthen regional stability and security."

He thanked Bulgaria for making a valuable contribution to NATO-led operations and missions in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq.

"It is very clear from the operations and missions that NATO is very much in demand and will continue to remain in demand, possibly increasingly so, " Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said.

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