By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 8, 2008 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today called on southeastern European nations to consider helping the military training effort in Afghanistan. Here for a regional defense ministers conference, Gates also met today with Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and Defense Minister Zoran Konjanovski to discuss the nation's NATO aspirations, Macedonia's role in peacekeeping operations and bilateral cooperation.
Gates thanked the Macedonians for hosting the conference and thanked all the nations who have deployed forces to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"As the situation in Iraq continues to improve, I urge you to consider sending your military forces to Afghanistan, where there is an urgent need for trainers as they expand their army," Gates said during a news conference after the meeting. "Your assistance will not only help Afghanistan better protect and care for its citizens, but will also reinforce your important role in ensuring peace and stability around the globe."
Macedonia has 135 troops in Afghanistan and 80 in Iraq. It also has participated in many NATO exercises, and is considering augmenting its presence in Afghanistan as its forces end their deployment to Iraq in December, U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia Philip T. Reeker said.
Through a translator at the news conference following his meeting with Gates, Konjanovski said Macedonia plans to continue contributing to security efforts outside its borders.
"We were praised for the participation of the army of the Republic of Macedonia in peace support operations and missions abroad," Konjanovski said, "which will continue in the future, and we are always ready to participate where our help is needed."
Attending his second regional defense ministers conference in southeastern Europe as U.S. secretary of defense, Gates promised continued support for the participating nations' aspirations.
"I would like reiterate America's commitment to helping integrate southern Europe into Euro-Atlantic institutions, such as the [European Union] and NATO," Gates said. "The United States strongly supports Macedonia's aspirations to become a full member of NATO."
Konjanovski thanked America and Gates for U.S. support for Macedonia's NATO membership. Greece, Macedonia's neighbor to the south, nixed Macedonia's NATO membership during the alliance's April summit meeting in Bucharest, Romania. Since Macedonia's breakaway from Yugoslavia in 1991, Greece has worried that Macedonia has territorial ambitions over a Greek province of the same name.
"We encourage Macedonia and Greece to find an immediate solution to the name issue, which is in the best interests of both parties and the region," Gates said.