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Militant Muslims Enter NATO's Diplomatic Radar

Western military alliance opens talks today with five North African and Mideast nations

THE world's preeminent defensive military alliance is opening a diplomatic offensive to promote stability in some of the most volatile parts of the world.

NATO Secretary-General Willy Claes is scheduled to hold talks today with five North African and Middle East countries. The aim is to begin a dialogue on security issues between NATO and the Mediterranean world, a region where Islamic fundamentalism has been gaining support.

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Several of NATO's southern members - France, Spain, and Italy - have recently pushed for the alliance to devote more attention to Mediterranean security.

The Mediterranean overture comes a few days after NATO backed a US initiative to assuage Moscow's concerns about NATO's planned expansion into Central Europe, which Russia says threatens its security.

The growth of Islamic fundamentalism and economic uncertainty in North Africa and the Middle East could exacerbate two concerns that preoccupy the West: terrorism and the possible spread of nuclear weapons.

In addition, Western officials are concerned about Algeria, where the government is battling an Islamic fundamentalist insurgency. If the outlawed Islamic Salvation Front comes to power in Algeria, Western officials worry that political instability could proliferate across the region, sparking an emigration wave that Europe isn't well-prepared to handle.

The five Mediterranean states slated to participate in the NATO talks are Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia, Egypt, and Israel. Talks were not expected to touch on military matters, but would focus more on fostering understanding and information exchanges.

In opening the dialogue, NATO officials will have to tread carefully. Mr. Claes already caused controversy recently when he said Islamic fundamentalism, was ``at least as dangerous as communism'' used to be for the West.

Several NATO ambassadors reportedly complained that the statement undermined the alliance's interests by antagonizing Islamic extremists. They pointed to statements by Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, for example, who said such ``false statements,'' a reference to Claes's comments, would only encourage the Islamic world ``to listen to the message of Iran'' the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily reported. Claes has since backed off. ``NATO has no quarrel with Islam,'' he said Feb. 17 in Italy.

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NATO's growing interest in the Mediterranean is unlikely to significantly distract from efforts to expand the alliance into Central Europe, according to a NATO source in Brussels. A feasibility study on eastern expansion could be completed as soon as September, the source said.

Russian leaders have sharply criticized plans to bring nations formerly in Moscow's sphere of influence into NATO, suggesting such a move could lead to a ``Cold Peace'' between Russia and the West.

The US, with its initiative, hopes to ease Moscow's security worries. Although details haven't been made public, some officials hint the proposal may contain an offer to establish a special relationship between the West and Moscow outside existing multilateral organizations. A letter from President Clinton to Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, to be relayed this week by US diplomats, contained the details of the initiative.

Although Russia's public line seems irreconcilably opposed to NATO's eastward expansion, the alliance source suggested Moscow would eventually accept the concept. ``The Russians are just trying to up the ante, and get something in return,'' the source said.

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