bush.gifWASHINGTON– President Bush kicked off the weekend by signing agreements endorsing Albania and Croatia as NATO members and called on other Balkan and former Soviet countries to join the alliance.

Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen joined the president for the Oct. 24 White House ceremony as he signed the protocols alongside NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

“With today’s ceremony, we celebrate two young and vigorous democracies seeking to assume new responsibilities in a time of terrorism and a time of war,” Bush said. “We strengthen America’s partnership with nations that once found themselves in the shackles of communism. We rejoice in taking a major step toward welcoming the people of Albania and Croatia into the greatest alliance for freedom the world has ever known.”

NATO voted at its Bucharest summit in April to invite both Albania and Croatia to join NATO, but other member nations must sign the accession protocols before they become official.

“The invitation to join NATO is recognition of the difficult reforms these countries have undertaken on the path to prosperity and peace,” Bush said. “In return, NATO membership offers the promise of security and stability. The United States and our NATO allies will stand united in defense of our fellow members.”

NATO membership will ensure the people of Albania and Croatia know that “ff any nation threatens their security, every member of our Alliance will be at their side,” he said.

The president called their entry into NATO “an historic step for the Balkans,” noting that within a decade the region has “transformed itself from a land consumed by war to a contributor to international peace and stability.”

“The people of Albania and Croatia are helping move the world closer to a great triumph of history – a Europe that is whole, a Europe that is free and a Europe that is at peace,” he said.

Bush reiterated U.S. support for others to join NATO, including Georgia, Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro, and Serbia if it chooses. These countries “remember the pain of tyranny,” and, as a result, “treasure the blessings of liberty,” he said.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer called the U.S. signing of the accession protocols particularly significant in light of the U.S. role in NATO.

Albania’s and Croatia’s membership in NATO “will strengthen our common effort to safeguard and promote security and stability,” he said. “Both countries have set an example for others to follow and we will encourage and support all those who aspire that same goal.”

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