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Afghanistan, Kosovo, Missile Defense On Agenda As Bush Meets With NATO Chief

CRAWFORD, Texas (AP) _ The increasing violence in Afghanistan, NATO's role in Kosovo and U.S. plans for a missile defense system in Europe top the agenda for talks between President Bush and the alliance's leader.

President Bush awaited the arrival Sunday of Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer for meetings at his Texas ranch.

Bush was hosting de Hoop Scheffer and his wife for an overnight stay at the president's cherished getaway from Washington. An invitation is considered a coup.

In Afghanistan, more than 1,600 people have been killed in insurgency-related violence this year, according to U.S., NATO and Afghan figures. The mounting civilian death toll has fueled distrust of international forces and U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai.

``It's a very high priority for us, just on a humanitarian level,'' White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Sunday about the civilian casualties. ``It's a high priority for us on a hearts-and-minds level: We don't want to see any erosion of support from the civilian population.''

Fratto said the blame lies with Taliban militants who use civilians as shields. ``This is a clear, express tactic of the enemy to put civilians in harm's way,'' he said.

Expected to join the president and first lady Laura Bush at dinner Sunday night were Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The role of the 26-nation alliance in the war in Afghanistan remains a sensitive matter.

The Bush administration is urging some European allies to provide more troops to fight Taliban forces in southern Afghanistan and to lift restrictions on how and where soldiers can fight.

Politicians in the United States, Canada, Britain and other nations with troops in the south have been annoyed by the reluctance of some European allies to commit extra soldiers to the roughly 37,000-strong NATO force _ in particular to be deployed to the Taliban's heartland.

A suicide bomber detonated himself in a crowded market on Sunday in the eastern Afghanistan, killing at least 14 people and wounding 31. That blast in Gardez came a day after a suicide bomber in northern Afghanistan killed three German soldiers and seven civilians.

The discussions also were to address the status of Kosovo, a poor region under U.N. administration since 1999.

The U.S backs a U.N. resolution to ratify the province's independence from Serbia, but that plan is opposed by Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power.

Moscow has opposed successive enlargements of NATO into Eastern Europe. NATO's likely expansion into the Balkans does not please Russia, but the Kremlin has shown even more concern about the prospect that neighbors Ukraine and Georgia may be brought into the alliance.

Russia is also critical of U.S. plans to install radar and interceptors in Eastern Europe as part of a missile defense program, another source of growing tension between the countries.
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