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NATO signals new Afghan approach

Story Highlights

NATO leaders agree to ease restrictions on rules of engagement
Altered combat rules mean up to 26,000 troops now "more useable"
• Rapid response force will allow NATO troops to be deployed more quickly
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RIGA, Latvia (CNN) -- NATO leaders meeting in the Latvian capital Riga have agreed to ease some restrictions governing rules of engagement in Afghanistan, but only in emergency situations.

The national caveats -- rules on where, when and how allied troops operate in Afghanistan -- have been the focus of a NATO summit, where leaders of 26 member nations have been meeting for two days.

A NATO spokesman said Wednesday an extra 26,000 of the 32,000 Allied troops in Afghanistan were now "more usable" for combat with the lifting of some national caveats.

He said some nations had agreed their troops could be used in more "emergency" situations, and that there was also an Allied commitment for more helicopters and more fighter aircraft to the Afghan mission.

The leaders of the military alliance declared in a joint statement their ongoing support for Afghanistan.

"It is winnable, it is being won, but not yet won," said NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

With commitments to emergency situations only, France, Germany, Italy and Spain have continued to stress their troops will not be joining US, British, Canadian and Dutch troops fighting the Taliban in troubled areas in the south and the east.

"This has been our clear position from the beginning," Italian Premier Romano Prodi said after a dinner on Tuesday. "That also goes for the French president, the German chancellor and the Spanish."

A Spanish official told Reuters that Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero had offered use of Spanish helicopters in exceptional circumstances to help evacuate wounded NATO soldiers.

At a news conference in Riga, de Hoop Scheffer also announced that Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro would be offered "Partnerships for Peace," the first step on the road to membership to the military alliance. (Full story)

The announcement represented a reversal in NATO policy as Serbia and Bosnia have been under intense pressure to hand over war criminals before they could be welcomed into the fold.

A spokesperson for chief U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte in the Hague told Reuters she regretted NATO's change in position "because it looks like a reward for not fully cooperating with the prosecutor."

Unified Afghan approach

The secretary-general also said in his speech that a group of countries to assist with Afghanistan's reconstruction -- proposed by French President Jacques Chirac -- would also be formed.

"Heads and state and government have tasked me to forward proposals on the possibility of a Contact Group," said de Hoop Scheffer.

He also urged greater co-operation between NATO, the United Nations, the European Union and the World Bank on rebuilding Afghanistan, and urged nations to donate more money to reconstruction efforts in the war-torn country. (NATO allies disagree)

"The bottom line I think is that ... five years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan is making real progress to build a society that is democratic under Afghan ownership, the Afghan people and the Afghan government have the responsibility and that is no longer a threat to the world," he said.

The secretary-general also said a new rapid response force would be created that would allow NATO troops to be deployed more quickly.

The NATO Response Force (NRF), with a troop strength of up to 25,000 soldiers, will play "a vital part in the Alliance's response to a rapidly emerging crisis," NATO leaders said in a joint statement on the force.

'Ironing out'

CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley said the countries were still trying to iron out differences on the Afghan mission, principally on the restrictions related to caveats.

"There seems to be an agreement -- although they will maintain restrictions -- they will agree that in extremis, in times of great peril for NATO forces, the forces may be able to assist the fighting in Helmand, in the south," he said.

Oakley also said there would be debate about expanding NATO's relations beyond Europe, to include partnerships with Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea. He said greater training initiatives were expected to be announced later Wednesday.

The alliance also released a document providing political guidance for military operations over the next 10 to 15 years.

"This environment continues to change; it is and will be complex and global, and subject to unforeseeable developments," said the statement.

"International security developments have an increasing impact on the lives of the citizens of allied and other countries. Terrorism, increasingly global in scope and lethal in results, and the spread of weapons of mass destruction are likely to be the principal threats to the alliance."

Tony Blair, left, listens to Jaap de Hoop Scheffer before an official dinner.


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