This is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program IN THE NEWS.
Leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization met in Prague this week. NATO member nations officially invited seven countries in eastern and central Europe to join the alliance. The proposed expansion would be NATO's biggest since the end of the Soviet Union.
The nineteen current members asked Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to join the alliance. Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia also were asked. Those invited are expected to join NATO in Two-Thousand-Four.
President Bush spoke to the heads of state and government gathered at the Prague meeting. The president said that adding the seven countries would strengthen the alliance. He said the struggle these areas once faced under Soviet control would bring a moral clearness to NATO. He said their inclusion supports the idea of a Europe that is whole, free and at peace.
Czech President Vaclav Havel said NATO's expansion would end what he called the unnatural divide between western Europe and former Soviet allies. British Prime Minister Tony Blair also praised the expansion. He called it a major step toward improving European security. French President Jacques Chirac made similar comments.
The countries asked to become NATO members are celebrating the event. Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha said the invitation was one of the most important events in modern Bulgarian history. Romanian President Ion Iliescu said his country's invitation represents a total break with the past. He said joining the Alliance is a major step forward.
NATO established requirements for countries seeking to become members. These include policies for military spending, rules for secure communications and civilian control of defense operations. NATO countries also have made clear the need for reforms in such areas as human rights, press freedoms and the fight against economic wrongdoing.
Leaders at the Prague meeting made decisions on several other issues. They agreed to create a new security force that can be deployed more quickly than other NATO troops. The twenty-thousand member force will be trained in war operations to deal with possible terrorist threats. The leaders said they would re-organize the Alliance's command structure. They also declared their support for efforts to disarm Iraq.
Several NATO members said they planned to increase military spending and provide better equipment to the Alliance. They say improvements will be made to heavy transport aircraft, guided weapons and protection against chemical and biological weapons.
President Bush flew to Russia Friday and met with President Vladimir Putin. After their talks, Mr. Putin said Russia still believes that NATO's expansion is unnecessary. Yet he also said Russia is prepared to increase its cooperation with the alliance.
This VOA Special English program IN THE NEWS, was written by Caty Weaver. This is Steve Ember.