Rumsfeld meets Nordic, Baltic officials

TALLINN, Estonia, AP

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld discussed the expected expansion of NATO on Saturday with his counterparts from seven Baltic and Nordic nations and said he would consult with a top U.S. official who had just visited India and Pakistan.

In his meeting with the defense ministers, Rumsfeld discussed a range of issues, including the likelihood that the three Baltic countries — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — will be invited to join NATO when allied leaders meet in Prague, the Czech capital, in November.

Rumsfeld told reporters that “most of us favor a relatively robust” expansion of NATO, which now has 19 member countries.

He declined to be more specific but said U.S. President George W. Bush favors adding “a good number” of candidate countries, which include Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia and Macedonia, in addition to the Baltic nations.

Macedonia and Albania are thought to be the least likely to gain membership invitations this year.

Rumsfeld said he planned to consult Saturday with the U.S. State Department’s No. 2 official before deciding when to travel to India and Pakistan to continue efforts at averting war.

Until he meets with Richard Armitage, Rumsfeld said he had nothing he wanted to say about the situation. Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, met with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Thursday and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on Friday.

Rumsfeld spoke at a news conference after meeting with Baltic and Nordic defense ministers from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. That session focused on the global fight against terrorism and prospects for expanding NATO.

The U.S. defense secretary was scheduled to travel Sunday from Estonia to the Persian Gulf to meet with government officials in Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, before heading to Pakistan and India. Aides said Saturday that it was possible Rumsfeld would switch plans and go to South Asia before the Gulf.

Rumsfeld said Saturday before meeting with Armitage that he had not decided where he would travel next. Armitage was trying to persuade the nuclear-armed rivals to ease tensions along their frontier in the disputed province of Kashmir.