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The North Atlantic Treaty Organization picked Belgian Foreign Minister Willy Claes as the alliance's top civilian leader Monday.

NATO officials and diplomats said the informal decision will be formalized later in the week in New York or in early October in Europe. However, they said it was unclear when Claes will assume his duties."In today's meeting (of NATO ambassadors), support coalesced around Claes," one official said. "A letter inviting Claes to be secretary-general has been sent - which we expect him to accept - and we anticipate a formal announcement later in the week in New York when foreign ministers gather for the U.N. general assembly."

But another official said it was possible a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in early October would be expanded to include the United States, Canada, Norway, Turkey and Iceland.

The NATO post opened Aug. 13 when Manfred Woerner of Germany died following a two-year battle with cancer. Deputy Secretary-General Sergio Balanzino is carrying out those duties temporarily.

The choice of Claes was worked out in the capitals of the 16 NATO nations over the past several weeks and agreed on in Brussels only after Denmark and Norway both made clear they were willing to give up bids by a Norwegian and a Dane, the official said.

All alliance decisions are made unanimously, and the top civilian post is reserved for a European because an American always serves as the alliance's top military officer.