Defense secretary discusses security issues in advance of NATO meeting

Monday, October 11th 2004, 11:20 am
By: News On 6

CONSTANTA, Romania (AP) _ One day after visiting Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld toured a spruced-up military base here Monday and heard a Romanian government sales pitch for making it a new American outpost within easy reach of potential hot spots in the Middle East and Central Asia.

No deal was struck, and Rumsfeld's aides discouraged reporters traveling with him from thinking he was scouting for new bases. But the facilities in Constanta clearly are among bases the Pentagon is considering for occasional training and air access, though not permanent troop basing.

Asked after one of several briefings for Rumsfeld and other Pentagon officials where he thought the United States will agree to make Mihail Kogalniceanu one of its rotational bases, Romania Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski told an American reporter, ``Of course I hope so, you know. But it's not in our hands.''

Rumsfeld did not make any public comment. An official traveling with him who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity told reporters that the Romanians are eager to make a deal for the base, which is a combination of an air base, an adjacent army station and nearby training ranges.

``They wrote the menu. We have to figure out what we want to pick, if anything,'' the official said, adding that he expected a final decision to be made sometime in 2005. He said it was likely that a U.S. government assessment team would visit Romania this fall to check more details.

The air base is used by Romanian reserves, and the mechanized infantry brigade that uses the adjacent army post is about to abandon it, the official said, leaving plenty of room for the Americans.

As many as 3,500 U.S. troops were stationed here in February and March 2003 to prepare for the start of the war in Iraq. U.S. Army paratroopers based in Italy used Constanta as a staging base for their airlift into northern Iraq in the opening days of the war. It also was used as an air transport hub by the Air Force during the Afghanistan war. No U.S. troops are based here now.

Later Rumsfeld flew to Bucharest, the Romanian capital, for meetings with senior government leaders on Tuesday. He is scheduled to attend NATO meetings Wednesday and Thursday at a resort in central Romania.

Rumsfeld flew here from Skopje, Macedonia where he met with senior government officials. At a news conference in Skopje, Rumsfeld said the Bush administration supports Macedonia's efforts to become a NATO member.

Macedonia is a former republic of Yugoslavia and it is struggling with its own ethnic tensions between the Muslim, Slavic, and ethnic Albanian parts of its population.

Rumsfeld told reporters he had encouraged the Macedonian government to fully implement a 2001 agreement to achieve more political power sharing among its ethnic groups.

``Success in moving closer to NATO will depend in large part on implementation of the 2001 framework agreement, including the creation of stronger, more effective local government,'' he said.

In August Macedonia adopted a law to decentralize political power as part of the 2001 agreements. A November 7 national referendum will determine the fate of that new step.

Rumsfeld said the August legislation ``certainly helps strengthen democracy here at the grass roots level. The Macedonian people face a clear choice between a future with NATO in which stability and economic growth can flourish or a return to the past. We support your sovereignty and territorial integrity and your vision to become a part of NATO.''

Rumsfeld and his Romanian counterpart signed an agreement to increase cooperation in combatting the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Under terms of the agreement the United States will provide equipment and training materials valued at $258,000 to monitor and detect trafficking of elicit weapons material.

At a ceremony in Skopje, Rumsfeld awarded Bronze Star medals to two Macedonian soldiers for exceptional valor in combat actions in Iraq in which they were credited with saving the lives of at least two U.S. soldiers in 2003.