In NATO's final declaration at the end of the Riga summit today, leaders from the 26-member alliance congratulated hopefuls from the Balkans -- Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia -- for the progress on reforms that they had made toward joining the bloc.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said after the summit that the declaration was a firm indication of membership perspectives for the Balkan states who will fulfill NATO standards.
"We have sent a clear signal to the countries who have Membership Action Plan -- the countries in the western Balkans and who are aspiring [to] NATO- membership -- that at our next summit in 2008, those nations that meet NATO standards will receive invitations," de Hoop Scheffer said.
The alliance today also invited Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina to join the NATO's Partnership for Peace Program, which is seen as a first step toward closer integration with the bloc.
NATO said the three countries can offer a "valuable contribution" to stability in the Balkans.
Serbian President Boris Tadic welcomed NATO's invitation, calling it "great news for our citizens, army, and state."
However, the chief UN prosecutor investigating crimes committed during the Balkan wars, Carla Del Ponte, said she "regrets" the decision, which she called "a reward" for the countries' "lack of cooperation" with the war crimes tribunal.
Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were earlier excluded from the Partnership for Peace program because of their failure to apprehend Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the two leading war crimes suspects indicted by the UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Both remain at large.
In its invitation, NATO urged Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to cooperate fully with the UN war crimes tribunal.
The NATO decision, announced at a summit in Riga, came more than seven years after Serbia was bombed by NATO for 78 days in 1999 following a crackdown by Belgrade against Kosovo Albanians.
(compiled from agency reports)