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Ministers from 24 states on Tuesday signed a landmark "open skies" treaty, allowing former Cold War adversaries to make surveillance flights over each other's territory.

The new pact, signed during a meeting of the 51-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), was the culmination of almost three years of on-off negotiations between members of NATO and the former Warsaw Pact.The talks originally included 22 countries, but Russia, Ukraine and Belarus signed the pact in place of the now-defunct Soviet Union.

Finnish Foreign Minister Paavo Vayrynen, opening the signing ceremony at Helsinki's House of Estates, described the treaty as "without equal in the area of verification and confidence building."

Diplomats said the treaty would be an important step in building confidence among the former Cold War foes as the CSCE seeks to extend security in a region stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok and the Chinese border.

Airplanes using surveillance equipment can often gather more detailed information than satellites. Under the treaty, data collected will be shared among all signatories.

The United States can to conduct eight observation flights over the territory of Russia and Belarus and one flight, shared with Canada, over Ukraine.

Russia and Belarus jointly are given four flights over America, three over Britain, two over Canada and two flights each over most countries with territory bordering the Commonwealth of Independent States.