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Bush Signs NATO Protocols For Albania, Croatia

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- U.S. President George W. Bush has signed NATO agreements that put Albania and Croatia a step closer to joining the Western security alliance, calling it a historic step for the Balkans.

NATO members agreed at an April summit in Bucharest to invite Albania and Croatia to join the alliance. The Balkan neighbors will be eligible when all 26 NATO members ratify the accession protocols.

"Albania and Croatia's entry into NATO is an historic step for the Balkans," Bush said at a White House ceremony to sign the agreements on October 24.

"In the space of a single decade this region has transformed itself from a land consumed by war to a contributor to international peace and stability."

Bush also reaffirmed U.S. support for NATO membership for Georgia, Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro, and for Serbia if it chose that path.

"All these nations treasure the blessings of liberty because they remember the pain of tyranny," Bush said.

The United States has stressed its support for Georgia joining NATO after a brief war in August between Tbilisi and Russia over the rebel region of South Ossetia.

Moscow is vehemently opposed to NATO expansion toward its borders by the alliance offering membership to former Soviet states.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, at the signing ceremony, praised Bush for his "relentless energy" to make NATO a larger and more successful alliance.

He said Albania and Croatia joining NATO would be a "boon for Southeast Europe and a vivid demonstration that Southeast Europe can shed its tragic past."