BRUSSELS, Belgium - NATO allies agreed yesterday to provide the United States with all the assistance requested as it prepared a military response to the attacks on New York and Washington.
The 18 other allies agreed to U.S. requests for unlimited use of their airspace; access to ports, airfields, refueling facilities and NATO airborne early-warning aircraft; extra security for U.S. forces in Europe; intelligence sharing; and replacement of any troops that might be moved from the Balkans.
The nations also agreed to stage a naval show of force in the Eastern Mediterranean "to provide a NATO presence and demonstrate resolve," an official statement said.
"These decisions clearly demonstrate the allies' resolve and commitment to support and contribute to the U.S.-led fight against terrorism," NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said at a news conference.
The swift acceptance of the full list submitted Wednesday after the allies invoked the mutual defense clause of NATO's founding treaty was a powerful signal of political support for the United States.
NATO activated Article V, under which an attack on one ally is treated as an attack on all, after the United States laid out detailed evidence Tuesday implicating Saudi-born Islamic militant Osama bin Laden and his Afghan-based al-Qaida network in the Sept. 11 suicide airliner attacks.
Robertson made clear he did not expect NATO to be directly involved in collective military action, saying it was "open to the United States to act on its own, or to do so in association with any group of states."
The allies pledged to increase security for U.S. and allied facilities on their territory and provide assistance to states "which are or may be subject to increased terrorist threats as a result of their support for the campaign against terrorism."
This appeared to be a veiled call on NATO nations to help protect and reward countries such as Pakistan, Oman, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan that face political and security risks from providing the United States with vital assistance and bases.
Robertson named no countries but said: "It's a statement of solidarity, a recognition that some countries may face problems if they take a firm stand."
A senior NATO diplomat stressed that the assistance pledged by the allies was open-ended.
"We are not restricting ourselves to geographical limits, to time limits or to target limits," he said. "This is a broad campaign against terrorism. ... Today's decisions are blanket."
A European diplomat said that while some of the measures, such as granting blanket overflight clearances, could be taken instantly, others would require detailed military planning.
Attack could be days away
France's defense minister said yesterday in Paris that U.S. military retaliation for last month's attacks isn't likely for several weeks.
Alain Richard said many key decisions by nations participating in the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign had not been made and should not be made in haste.
But some experts said the time window for military action appeared to be narrowing, with several indicators pointing to a possible strike as soon as soon as next week.
A host of factors including politicians' travel plans, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, public opinion, the weather and Muslim holidays all point to a short window of opportunity for action between Monday and the middle of next month.
Food airdrops expected
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that the Pentagon is planning to air-drop relief supplies into Afghanistan as part of a broader U.S. government humanitarian aid effort.
In an interview aboard his plane en route to Cairo, Rumsfeld told reporters the Bush administration is preparing emergency assistance for Afghanistan, where destitute civilians by the thousands are fleeing in chaos amid fear of U.S. military attack against the ruling Taliban regime.
Rumsfeld said there is no doubt the U.S. military will be involved in delivering aid, probably including airdrops.
"The plan for that is being worked out in Washington as we're here," he said as his Air Force jet crossed the Arabian Peninsula on the third leg of a five-nation tour of the Middle East and Central Asia.
Rumsfeld began the day in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he spoke with King Fahd and other Saudi leaders Wednesday night. He flew to Muscat, Oman, for a meeting with Sultan Qaboos in an open tent in the desert, then traveled to Cairo to see Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other officials.
Today he will be in Uzbekistan, a key potential staging area for attacks on Afghanistan. There were no known plans for him to meet with representatives of the Afghan group fighting Taliban rule, the Northern Alliance.
At each stop Rumsfeld has tried to counter the notion that President Bush's campaign against terrorism is aimed at Muslims - an idea he said is advanced by terrorists and their sympathizers.
A large humanitarian aid program for Afghanistan - particularly if it includes Air Force planes delivering food to the impoverished and destitute - would dramatize Bush's argument that the United States sees the problem of international terrorism as separate from any religious issue.
Rumsfeld said satellite photos show masses of Afghans fleeing on foot in search of food and refuge.
"It is a heartbreaking thing to see," he said.
Rumsfeld said the Pentagon would be careful to design an airdrop that could succeed.
"You wouldn't want the rations to fall into the wrong hands," he said, referring to the al-Qaida terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime that harbors them.
The United States has put more than 300 aircraft in the region around Afghanistan, some of which could be used for air drops.
Rumsfeld also said the struggle to defeat terrorism is more likely to resemble the West's decades-long contest against communism - fought on many fronts, often outside the military arena - than a major shooting war.
His comments offered the strongest suggestion yet by the Bush administration that, while the U.S. military will play a role in rooting out terrorists, its contribution may be smaller than commonly assumed.
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