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The NATO allies agreed Thursday on the need to respect Soviet concerns about a reunited Germany, but a new controversy arose over Bonn's refusal to accept deployment of a missile considered vital by the United States and Great Britain.

The NATO foreign ministers began a two-day meeting that was expected to give formal backing to a plan intended to calm Moscow's worries about a unified Germany's membership in the Western alliance, a U.S. official told Reuters.They also were to approve outlines for a fresh political role for the alliance and signal a new flexibility to help break an impasse in conventional arms talks, he said.

"Everybody is agreed that the legitimate security interests of the Soviet Union in Europe must be respected," West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher told reporters. "This is an important signal to the Soviets," he said.

But the optimistic mood was clouded by signs of a new controversy on nuclear weapons in Europe.

West German sources said Bonn would refuse to accept a new air-launched missile that United States and Britain consider a vital component of NATO's nuclear strategy.

A U.S. official who asked not to be identified expressed irritation with the West Germans, saying: "We thought we had an understanding not to talk about it in these terms."

Secretary of State James Baker discussed a new and still vague Soviet proposal for an agreement between the Western alliance and the Warsaw Pact. The proposal was seen as part of an emerging compromise to help overcome Soviet objections to Western demands that a unified Germany belong to NATO.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has rejected NATO membership for Germany, insisting the country be neutral or part of a new pan-European security arrangement (see Global Outlook column on A9).