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Europe: Security Experts Argue Over Rapid-Reaction Force

Munich, 5 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. and European security experts argued at an international conference in Munich on Friday (Jan. 3) about plans by the European Union to develop its own security system, including the creation of a rapid-reaction force which could be rushed to a crisis area.

In the European view, the force would act independently in crisis areas where the NATO alliance was not involved, but would be able to make use of NATO facilities, including military bases, transport aircraft and intelligence information.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told the conference that the European rapid reaction force would become a reality in 2003. He said a Europe capable of reacting to security crises would strengthen the European pillar of the NATO alliance and so strengthen the Alliance as a whole.

The European project was also defended by NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, who was previously the British defense secretary. He said he would never support any plan which might undermine NATO.

But U.S. and Canadian speakers told the conference they were doubtful of the benefits of the European project and feared it could create divisions in the transatlantic alliance.

U.S. Defense Minister Donald Rumsfeld told the meeting that in his view the NATO alliance was the heart of European defense and the first priority should be to maintain it as as the core of Europe's security structure.

Rumsfeld said any action which could reduce NATO's effectiveness would not be a positive development. Rumsfield left the international conference on on Friday for a U.S. military base in Germany without meeting with a senior Russian official.

U.S. officials said earlier that Rumsfeld was expected to confer with Sergei Ivanov, the Secretary of the Russian Security Council.

Ivanov addressed the conference on Saturday.

If the talks had taken place they would have been the first between a senior official of the Bush administration with a top Russian official.

U.S. officials at the conference declined to discuss why the meeting did not take place.

An RFE/RL correspondent at the conference says Rumsfeld did not mention Russia in his address earlier on Friday. His speech focussed on the controversial missile defence system planned by the United States He said the U.S. would go ahead with the system despite protests by Russia and the doubts expressed by some west European countries.

The U.S. defense secretary did confer with the German, French and Italian defense ministers. U.S. officials said these talks focussed on the missile defense system and on the new European rapid reaction force. No details of the discussions were released.