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Christopher to Underscore Importance of Kyiv, Prague

March 19 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher travels to Prague and Kyiv today to deliver a message that Ukraine, the Czech Republic and other nations in the region are important to the United States.

U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns told our correspondent that "Ukraine has become for the U.S. a major partner in Europe," adding "we want close relations with Ukraine."

He says the U.S. believes Ukraine has an important role to play in the stability of Europe.

Christopher is on a five-nation tour of Europe to deal with questions of security and disarmament. He is scheduled to arrive in Kyiv today from Geneva where he spent a day in talks yesterday with Bosnian leaders.

His stay in Kyiv will be brief -- only a few hours -- but carries symbolic importance.

Burns says Christopher's meeting with President Leonid Kuchma will be their third encounter in six weeks. They met in early February during Kuchma's official visit to Washington, and later that month in Helsinki when both happened to be there on separate visits.

Christopher is to have talks also with other top Ukrainian officials, including prime minister Yevhen Marchuk, Chairman of The Supreme Council Oleksandr Moroz and Foreign Minister Hennadiy Udovenko.

Burns says the agenda will include a discussion of Ukraine's economic reform program and activities in the NATO Partnership for Peace program. "Ukraine was one of the first to join and is a leading participant in the Partnership," Burns said.

Before he leaves Kyiv for Prague in late afternoon, Christopher hopes also to visit a hospital, specialising in the treatment of victims of the 1985 Chernobyl nuclear accident.

A significant part of U.S. aid to Ukraine provides medical equipment and pharmaceutical supplies for the treatment of Chernobyl patients.

In Prague, Christopher is to have talks tomorrow with President Vaclav Havel, Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec and other dignitaries.

Christopher will also meet tomorrow with foreign ministers of other Central European countries, including the Baltics, at a regional conference on security in Prague.

He plans to deliver what Burns says will be a major address on U.S.-European relations.

Much of Christopher's talks in Prague are expected to focus on NATO expansion and the desire of some Central Europeans to accelerate the process of joining the alliance.

Christopher has told reporters that one of the reasons he is going to Prague is "to reassure the Central Europeans" of the U.S. commitment to expanding NATO.

But he says, the U.S. and NATO allies do not believe the current policy should change. "We will continue to maintain a steady, deliberate course," he said.

Under the current timetable, no new members are to be accepted this year. U.S. officials are deliberately vague about a date for expansion. They say only that NATO will make the decisions about who and when by the end of this year.

Christopher winds up his stay in Prague on Thursday when he leaves for Moscow, the last leg of his tour. He is scheduled to spend two days in the Russian capital devoting part of the time to bilateral talks with top Russian officials, including President Boris Yeltsin. On Saturday, he attends a meeting of the contact group on Bosnia with Balkan leaders, which is being hosted for the first time by Russia. He is scheduled to leave Moscow for Washington late Saturday.