This is Steve Emberwith the VOA Special English Program, IN THE NEWS.
Leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization met in Praguethis week. NATO member nations officially invited seven countries ineastern and central Europe to join the alliance. The proposedexpansion would be NATO's biggest since the end of the Soviet Union.
The nineteen current members asked Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia andLithuania to join the alliance. Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia alsowere asked. Those invited are expected to join NATO inTwo-Thousand-Four.
President Bush spoke to the heads of state and governmentgathered at the Prague meeting. The president said that adding theseven countries would strengthen the alliance. He said the strugglethese areas once faced under Soviet control would bring a moralclearness to NATO. He said their inclusion supports the idea of aEurope that is whole, free and at peace.
Czech President Vaclav Havel said NATO's expansion would end whathe called the unnatural divide between western Europe and formerSoviet allies. British Prime Minister Tony Blair also praised theexpansion. He called it a major step toward improving Europeansecurity. French President Jacques Chirac made similar comments.
The countries asked to become NATO members are celebrating theevent. Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha said theinvitation was one of the most important events in modern Bulgarianhistory. Romanian President Ion Iliescu said his country'sinvitation represents a total break with the past. He said joiningthe Alliance is a major step forward.
NATO established requirements for countries seeking to becomemembers. These include policies for military spending, rules forsecure communications and civilian control of defense operations.NATO countries also have made clear the need for reforms in suchareas as human rights, press freedoms and the fight against economicwrongdoing.
Leaders at the Prague meeting made decisions on several otherissues. They agreed to create a new security force that can bedeployed more quickly than other NATO troops. The twenty-thousandmember force will be trained in war operations to deal with possibleterrorist threats. The leaders said they would re-organize theAlliance's command structure. They also declared their support forefforts to disarm Iraq.
Several NATO members said they planned to increase militaryspending and provide better equipment to the Alliance. They sayimprovements will be made to heavy transport aircraft, guidedweapons and protection against chemical and biological weapons.
President Bush flew to Russia Friday and met with PresidentVladimir Putin. After their talks, Mister Putin said Russia stillbelieves that NATO's expansion is unnecessary. Yet he also saidRussia is prepared to increase its cooperation with the alliance.
This VOA Special English program, IN THE NEWS, was written byCaty Weaver. This is Steve Ember.