Obama heads to France

April 3, 2009 12:00 am

, STRASBOURG Apr 3 – US President Barack Obama was due in France on Friday to meet European leaders and drum up support for his new Afghan war strategy at the NATO alliance’s 60th anniversary summit.

The city of Strasbourg on France’s frontier with Germany was under security lockdown ahead of the arrival of 28 NATO leaders following a day of clashes between protesters and French riot police that led to 300 arrests.

On his first European tour since being elected president, Obama was due to hold bilateral talks with France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany ahead of the summit proper.

Meanwhile, eager photographers were to be treated to the first meeting between the world’s most famous first ladies, Obama’s wife Michelle and Italian-born model-turned-singer Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

Pleasantries exchanged, the business of the summit will be a debate on tactics in Afghanistan, where its troops are battling a tenacious insurgency, and the Atlantic Alliance’s new overarching strategy.

As if to underline the urgency of the review, suspected Taliban militants in Pakistan marked the start of the two-day meeting by destroying a fleet of nine parked NATO vehicles in transit for Afghanistan.

There was trouble too in France, where police confirmed 300 suspects had been arrested overnight as protesters clashed with the 10,000-strong force manning the security cordon around the Strasbourg venue.

Among those injured in Thursday’s clashes between leftists opposed to NATO military operations and French police was a German press photographer, hospitalised after being hit in the stomach by a police rubber bullet.

NATO, the world’s most powerful military alliance, was formed in 1949 as a counterweight to the Soviet Union, the west’s foe in the Cold War, which came to an end two decades ago with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Since then the military alliance has grown to 28 members including several countries that were once in the Warsaw Pact, but NATO leaders will mix the celebrations with discussions of the challenges now facing the alliance.

Their formal meetings on Saturday will be dominated by NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, where 70,000 troops – mostly under NATO command – are at war.

Obama, who left London early on Friday, will use the summit to showcase his new Afghan war plan and enlist support from sometimes sceptical European allies for a renewed effort to crush Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Washington has decided to send 21,000 extra US troops and is considering deploying 10,000 more, while asking the allies to contribute more of their own soldiers and civilian support staff.

Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush struggled to convince reluctant European allies to increase their commitment, but the new US national security adviser predicts that NATO is now ready to up the ante.

"It would be wrong to conclude that we will not get any contributions, either manpower or resources, because I think that’s not going to be the case," General James Jones said in a conference call Thursday with reporters.

The summit will also debate whether and how to thaw ties with Russia, frozen after its war on Georgia in August.

To confront new security realities, NATO’s outgoing secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has prepared a debate on an updated alliance vision for the 21st century – dubbed NATO’s "strategic concept".

Obama began his European trip in London where he attended a crucial Group of 20 summit on the economic crisis.


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