- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM (AP) - Albania and Croatia became NATO’s newest members Wednesday in a historic expansion into the volatile western Balkans region where the alliance fought its first war a decade ago.

The two Balkan nations will be ceremonially inducted into NATO during a summit in Strasbourg, France, and Kehl, Germany, on Friday and Saturday to mark the alliance’s 60th anniversary. The two new states will take total members nations to 28.

“This is very welcome news” NATO spokesman James Appathurai said. “Albania and Croatia have worked very hard to meet alliance standards with regard to democracy, and the reform of their militaries.”

NATO forces have operated in the Balkans since the mid-1990s, when thousands of troops were deployed to Bosnia to act as peacekeepers in the aftermath of a 4-year civil war between ethnic Serbs, Muslims and Croats in which nearly 100,000 people perished.

In 1999, the alliance mounted its first-ever combat operation, when its air forces pounded Serbia for more than two months.

The operation was designed to end the crackdown by strongman Slobodan Milosevic on ethnic Albanian separatists in the southern province of Kosovo, which sparked the flight of hundreds of thousands of the province’s two million people.

Albania and Croatia have “overcome a difficult period in their history to become contributors to regional stability and international security,” Appathurai said.

“They will now benefit from collective security the alliance offers, but they will also bear the responsibility that collective security requires.”

The two newest members have already deployed troops to the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, where Croatia has 530 soldiers and Albania 140, according to NATO.

Founded in 1949, NATO has twice taken on new members since the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, its Soviet-dominated Cold War foe. Seven former-communist nations entered in 2004, following Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic who joined in 1999.

In contrast to the alliance’s previous eastward expansion which infuriated Russia, Moscow has not objected to the inclusion of Albania and Croatia in NATO.

This is partly because neither Albania nor Croatia were members of the old Communist military alliance. The former six-member Yugoslav federation broke free of the Soviet Union in 1948, while Albania followed suit in the early 1960s.

Albania and Croatia officially joined Wednesday after the alliance received necessary paperwork from all member states, Appathurai said.

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