Madrid, 9 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - The leaders of 16 NATO member countries and 28 other nations from Central Europe to Central Asia today discussed ways to build security and stability in their broad territory and to prevent regional conflicts. Observers see today's meeting as a way of giving a voice to aspirants who were left out, and to others for whom NATO membership is not likely any time soon.
The closed-door meeting of NATO country heads with leaders of Partnership for Peace (PfP) countries is taking place under the umbrella of NATO's Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council formed in May.
It comes one day after NATO leaders formally invited Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to become members in the first wave of expansion to take in former Warsaw Pact countries.
NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana, opening the meeting, said the council offers the possibility of expanded political consultation and practical cooperation. He said discussions between NATO and its partners will help make Europe and Central Asia more stable.
An important item on the agenda will be work to prevent crises and regional wars -- and provisions for future peace-keeping operations.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said regional cooperation will be very important in preventing conflict, especially on the perimeter of Europe.
After the meeting, Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis said that he expects the Baltic countries will be invited to join NATO within five to seven years. He said they could learn from Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, which he said emerged stronger militarily from the collapse of socialism than the Baltics.