Biggest ever NATO summit ends with birthday flourish

NATO's biggest-ever summit ended on the alliance's 59th birthday Friday in Bucharest with two new members, three disappointed applicants and signs of thawing relations with Russia. ( dpa )

The alliance's 26 heads of state and government also agreed to strengthen their defences against possible cyber-attacks, launched a new television channel and reconciled their differences over NATO's biggest ongoing military operation with a common "vision statement" on Afghanistan.

The three-day summit took place amid tight security inside a Cold War relic: Bucharest's gargantuan Palace of the Parliament, an overbearing 330,000-square-metre mansion built during the regime of former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

It was an apt setting for a gathering that extended invitations to two former communist states - Croatia and Albania.

The two will now be expected to formally join the alliance at its next summit in 2009, when NATO will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of its foundation.

But while Zagreb and Tirana celebrated, officials from a third applicant country from the Western Balkans, Macedonia, stormed out of the building in protest after being left out because of a dispute with Greece over Macedonia's name.

And there were mixed feelings in Georgia and Ukraine, with the two being denied offers of a hoped-for Membership Action Plan while receiving assurances that they would one day become NATO members.

The summit was also attended by the 14 non-NATO countries that contribute forces to NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and by Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's president, who repeatedly thanked allies for their assistance in his country.

France and several other countries confirmed that they would be sending more troops to the mission, while European Union Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon renewed their pledge to back its civilian side.

It was also the summit of the lame ducks.

A conciliatory Vladimir Putin put on a show for the press during his last appearance as president of Russia while outgoing US President George W Bush returned home with mixed results.

His ambitions to usher Georgia and Ukraine into NATO were thwarted by Germany and France, which feared such a move would further upset an already irate Russia. But he was able to trumpet a deal with the Czech Republic allowing the United States to site a key part of a US missile-defence system in Czech territory.

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who will leave office following the country's general election on April 14, confirmed that he would be leaving politics and returning to teaching economics.

And German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who still has about a year and a half to go before she is due to face the polls, emerged with her reputation as a masterful diplomat enhanced after her negotiating skills were recognized by many of her colleagues in Bucharest.

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