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NATO says new members to pay costs of expansion

NATO defense ministers insisted Thursday that the cost of extending the alliance's security umbrella over former Soviet-bloc nations must be kept to a minimum - and the new members must pay the lion's share.

"The bulk of the cost will be borne by the three new countries," said U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen. "There is no free lunch."Allied defense chiefs wrapped up a two-day meeting in this southern Dutch city with a nuts-and-bolts debate with their counterparts from Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic on the practical problems of enlargement.

Thursday's penny counting contrasted with the weighty speeches about extending a hand of friendship to former foes that were delivered at the summit in Madrid in July, when President Clinton and other allied leaders invited the three to join.

Ministers were aware that a clear signal on costs could be crucial to securing approval for the enlargement from the legislatures of the 16 NATO nations, including the U.S. Senate.

Many in the Senate are concerned about the price of expansion and the potential security risks of committing U.S. troops and nuclear weapons to defending the former communist countries.

The Senate is due to start hearings on the expansion plan Tuesday, with a vote on ratifying NATO membership for the three nations as early as February.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated expansion could cost the United States between $5 billion to $19 billion over 15 years - a figure the Pentagon and White House assert is grossly exaggerated.

"I don't think the opening of NATO to the three countries will cost a lot of money," said NATO Secretary General Javier Solana.