Albania hopes to join NATO in 2008

Albania hopes to receive an invitation to join NATO in 2008, when the alliance holds a summit to set out its expansion plans, Defense Minister Fatmir Mediu said Monday. Meeting NATO's top commander, U.S. Gen. James L. Jones, Mediu expressed concern that NATO had decided to put off the entry of any new members until 2008. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer last week restated NATO's position of keeping a door open for new members, but refusing to discuss possible entry dates. The alliance scheduled the 2008 summit to discuss possible expansion.

"This was a real concern," Mediu told reporters, but he added that Albania would use the time to modernize its forces in preparation for membership. "I hope that by 2008 we can have an invitation," he said. "We have a lot of expectations."

Jones refused to be drawn on whether 2008 was a realistic target for Albania to join the alliance, but he pledged support for the country's military drive to meet NATO's entry requirements. "The alliance will do everything it can to help aspiring nations meet those standards," Jones said.

Albania and its neighbors in the Balkans fear that delays in granting NATO membership could undermine efforts to stabilize the region. Those fears have been accentuated by the European Union's cooling on further expansion of the club, which has heightened the importance of early membership in NATO for those countries.

Albania has been struggling to draw closer to NATO and is considering increasing its contribution to the alliance's peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, presently a 22-member contingent.

Jones assured Albania that NATO's peacekeeping mission in Kosovo was prepared to handle any increasing tension as talks get under way next year on the province's possible independence from Serbia and Montenegro.

"We anticipate no special problems with regard to further violence," Jones said.

NATO military officials discussed Kosovo with Serbian leaders on Sunday in Belgrade, before talks on the disputed province's future status. U.N.-mediated status talks with Serbian and ethnic Albanian leaders are expected to start next year. I.L.

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