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NATO invokes its mutual defense clause over attacks

NATO formally invoked its mutual defense clause for the first time in its history on Tuesday after the United States offered "conclusive" evidence that Osama bin Laden was behind the Sept. 11 suicide airliner attacks.

Speaking after U.S. State Department counter-terrorism coordinator Frank Taylor gave a classified briefing to the NATO council, Secretary-General George Robertson said: “It is clear that all roads lead to al-Qaida and pinpoint Osama bin Laden as being involved in (the attacks).”

Robertson said the 19-nation alliance had determined that the attacks on Washington and New York were indeed directed from abroad and would thus be regarded as an attack on all allies.

European NATO diplomats stressed that while the decision was a “green light” for any U.S. riposte, it would not automatically trigger collective allied military action, since Washington wanted to keep its hands free.

Robertson said NATO’s military staff was making contingency plans but declined to spell out how the alliance would translate the decision into operational action. The United States was still developing its thinking, he said.

“It will be up to the United States of America to determine what help it requires in discharge of its Article 51 (of the United Nations Charter) right of self-defense.”

Diplomats said Tuesday’s decision, exactly three weeks after the attack, was largely political and symbolic. Washington had made no request to use collective NATO assets such as airborne surveillance planes and fuel pipelines.

Removing the ‘if’

NATO first invoked the Article V mutual defense clause of its 1949 founding treaty on Sept. 12, the day after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but made it conditional on the assault having been initiated from abroad.

Robertson said that “if” had now been removed.

“We know that the individuals who carried out these attacks were part of the world wide terrorist network of al-Qaida, headed by Osama bin Laden and his key lieutenants and protected by (Afghanistan’s ruling) Taliban,” he said in a statement.

“On the basis of this briefing, it has now been determined that the attack against the United States on September 11 was directed from abroad and shall therefore be regarded as an action covered by Article V of the Washington Treaty, which states that an armed attack on one or more of the allies in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against all of them.”

Robertson said the briefing covered results of the current investigation, background on Saudi-born militant bin Laden and his al-Qaida network and their involvement in “previous terrorist activity”, and the links between al-Qaida and the Taliban.

He gave no details and Taylor did not appear in public.

U.S. envoys delivered the same briefing on the investigation to governments in the 18 allied capitals at the same time, NATO officials said.

A European NATO diplomat said: “Although we are now in an Article V situation, nothing obliges the United States to open detailed consultations, and it’s our impression that they don’t want to consult, especially on targets, and they don’t even want to share information on targets.

“This is one step forward in the expression of our solidarity, but there are no concrete consequences now,” he said.

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