NATO wins Afghanistan support at Russian summit

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Western leaders struck a deal with Moscow to improve the flow of military equipment to NATO's Afghan frontline on Saturday, as the alliance held its first summit with Russia in two years.

Welcoming Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to the Lisbon meeting, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen saluted what he said was an historic turning point in the often tense ties between Moscow and the West.

The allies will invite Moscow to take part in the development of Europe's anti-missile shield and hope to agree a common statement on security threats, Rasmussen told the assembled leaders in his opening address.

"We've come to a turning point in the relations between the 29 nations represented here in the NATO-Russia Council. The nations represented here understand that our security is indivisible," Rasmussen said.

"Starting today we will begin working to see how we pursue NATO-Russia missile defence cooperation," he said, speaking one day after the Western allies agreed to deploy radars and missile-defence batteries in Europe.

"There are many issues to deal with, but the most important point is this, for the first time NATO nations and Russia will discuss cooperating to protect European territory and populations," he said.

"I'm pleased to be able to already announce today the completion of arrangements that will allow for the expanded transit of equipment to the ISAF mission via the Russian Federation," Rasmussen added.

The NATO chief did not go into detail, but officials said Moscow had agreed to allow shipments of non-lethal supplies on Russian railways into and out of Afghanistan -- including, for the first time, of armoured vehicles.

Previous accords only allowed equipment to head one-way into Afghanistan, forcing the alliance to use a more dangerous route through restive Pakistan.

Medvedev's participation in Lisbon marked the first meeting between a Russian president and the 28-nation alliance since his country's 2008 war with Georgia, a pro-Western former Soviet state that now aspires to join NATO.

"A former military adversary is now clearly a partner," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters.

"It's a turning point in working together that we can clearly call historic. Of course there's still a long road ahead of us, to build security with Russia, but to start on this road has extraordinary importance," she said.

NATO hopes to overcome Russian suspicions about its missile defence plans by inviting Moscow to cooperate in the system.

Obama's own so-called "reset" in Washington's relations with Russia faces a major obstacle, however, as the US Senate threatens to delay ratification of a landmark nuclear arms reduction pact.

European allies rallied to Obama's side, piling pressure on US senators to sign the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), with Rasmussen warning that any delay "would be damaging to security in Europe."

The treaty would restrict each nation to a maximum of 1,550 deployed warheads, a cut of about 30 percent from a limit set in 2002.

Western leaders adopted a once-in-a-decade mission statement on Friday which states that: "NATO poses no threat to Russia."

Before leaving Moscow, the Russian party said it was keen to share ideas about common missile defence but played down the chances of a major decision realigning the continent's security.

Rasmussen said Russia would likely be invited to link up with the NATO missile umbrella rather than merging its defences with its former foes.

"I think we should think of two separate systems that cooperate. We could exchange information and data and thereby make the whole system more efficient and give better coverage," he said Friday.

Russia is also considering opening a second counter-narcotics training centre in Afghanistan, while NATO wants it to provide around 20 Mi-17 helicopters, spare parts and pilot training to Afghanistan.

© 2010 AFP

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