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NATO urges early agreement on Kosovo independence plan

After the hot talks between Russia and NATO on the missile defenses, NATO foreign ministers had a new discussion. The issues was Moscow-Kosovo, the development of relationship with Ukraine and further expansion of the Western alliance.

The Western allies restated support for the U.N. plan that would grant Kosovo independence from Serbia under international supervision and urged Russia to lift its objections so the plan could move quickly through the U.N. Security Council.

They also cautioned Kosovo's Albanian-speaking majority against a unilateral declaration of independence.

"Of course NATO does not want to see unilateral moves taken outside of the context of a legitimate ... international process," said James Appathurai, the chief NATO spokesman.

Meeting with NATO on Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave no sign that Russia would relax its support for Serbia's opposition to the plan. Moscow has threatened to veto the plan in the U.N. Security Council.

NATO fears a delay or veto could lead the Kosovo Albanians to declare independence, triggering more violence in the territory where NATO has 16,000 peacekeepers. "NATO is concerned that unnecessary delays raise the risk of increased tension," Appathurai told reporters.

Kosovo is one of several issues bedeviling NATO-Russian relations a decade after the launch of a partnership program designed to end tension between the Cold War foes.

On Thursday, the NATO allies expressed grave concern over Russian President Vladimir Putin's declared intention to freeze compliance with a key arms control treaty as a war of words intensified over the planned deployment of American anti-missile defenses in Europe.

At the NATO meeting, Lavrov used language that recalled the Cold War to blast Western policy and accused the United States and its NATO allies of upsetting the security balance in Europe.

"We cannot be unconcerned by the fact that NATO military infrastructure is creeping up to our borders," Lavrov told a news conference after the meeting Thursday evening. "They are still looking for an enemy."

Appathurai said NATO was still seeking clarification of what Putin's comments would mean for the treaty that regulates the deployment of military aircraft, tanks and other non-nuclear weapons in Europe. He stressed the need to repair relations.

"The relationship between Russia and NATO is a fundamental strategic bridge which we all need," Appathurai said. "Nobody can ignore concern over the rising level of rhetoric over a range of strategic issues."

One of those is NATO's plan to further expand its membership by inviting Croatia, Macedonia and Albania to join next year - the first enlargement since seven former Soviet bloc nations joined in 2004.

Moscow has opposed successive enlargements of NATO into eastern Europe. The likely NATO expansion into the Balkans does not please Russia, but the Kremlin is much more concerned about the prospect that its neighbors Ukraine and Georgia may also be brought into the Western alliance.

Georgia's membership bid was not on the agenda Friday, but some NATO members are pushing for the alliance to open the door to the former Soviet republic. "Georgia can become a candidate to join the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2008," Polish President Lech Kaczynski said during a visit to Georgia this week.

Appathurai said Russia could not veto NATO expansion.

"Enlargement is the manifestation of the right of any democracy that meets the standards of the alliance to make its own defense associations as a sovereign nation," he insisted. "That principle will be adhered to by the alliance regardless of the concerns that might be expressed by other parties."

Ukraine's pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych has put the country's NATO membership on hold, but Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk will join the NATO talks to discuss closer cooperation with the alliance. However the talks are overshadowed by the political standoff in Ukraine between supporters of Yanukovych and pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko.