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14 July, 1999
US Defense Secretary William Cohen stressed yesterday from Thessaloniki that Greece's role in the pacification of Kosovo had been indispensable, while the northern port city will play a major part in the Balkans' reconstruction.
"Nothing could have been done without Greece's support, and for this reason the United States and NATO wish to express their gratitude for its stand," he said after talks with his Greek counterpart Akis Tsohatzopoulos and in response to a question over whether Greek public opinion attitudes had delayed the deployment of NATO forces in the troubled Yugoslav province.
Mr. Cohen arrived in Greece's northern capital yesterday afternoon. He will have talks in Athens today with Prime Minister Costas Simitis and main opposition New Democracy leader Costas Karamanlis.
The US defense secretary announced that his government planned to set up a commercial bureau in Thessaloniki with a view to participate in the reconstruction effort.
Both men refused to be drawn into providing extensive details in their one-hour talks. Mr. Tsohatzopoulos made a general reference, saying that apart from bilateral issues, they had discussed a common effort for the stabilization of the region, the situation in the Middle East and Mediterranean, which indicated that Greek-Turkish relations and the Cyprus issue were also included.
The Greek minister added that there was an exchange of information on defense and military matters, which pointed to issues of terrorism and the modernization of the Greek armed forces.
Mr. Cohen referred to US and Greek troops being "side by side" in Kosovo, while Mr. Tsohatzopoulos described his US counterpart's visit as "political", as it coincided with the selection of Thessaloniki as the headquarters of the Balkan reconstruction agency, and with the relevant efforts of the European Union and Washington.
The Greek defense minister stressed the importance of consolidating security in the region, adding that because the integration of Balkan countries in the EU and NATO required time, there was need for regional cooperation.
"Such an effort for the creation of conditions of security can be promoted through the establishment of an organization of military cooperation. The meeting today in Athens of the military and political committee of the peace force in SE Europe is the first step for the launching of this institution," he said. "This institution will strengthen the role of Greece and Thessaloniki as a center for supporting the new process of democratization, peace and development of the region," he added.
Regarding the two men's visit earlier to USS "Kearsarge" off Thessaloniki's port - set to return US personnel who served in Kosovo back home - Mr. Tsohatzopoulos said it symbolized the cooperation of Greece as a primary representative of the EU in the region.
In addition, Mr. Cohen did not appear to be annoyed by protesting Communist Party of Greece demonstrators, and was careful to distinguish, in response to questions, between anti-war sentiments in Greece during the Yugoslavia crisis and speculation about likely terrorist attacks.
"Those expressing their opposition with their voice cannot be confused with terrorists. Such expressions are welcome in democratic countries such as my own," he said.
Responding to a question on Greece's armaments program, Mr. Tsohatzopoulos said that in an especially competitive environment, the country needed to have a deterrent force and the program would be implemented.
Visit to helicopter carrier:
While addressing the crew of the USS "Kearsarge", Mr. Cohen noted that the United States is the top military power in the world. He also expressed pride because "we are the sole superpower in the world and we are contributing to world peace and security."
On his part, Mr. Tsohatzopoulos expressed satisfaction over the presence of US troops in the region, which, just as in the case of the Greek forces, had the aim of contributing to the consolidation of peace in Kosovo.
The US vessel will stay in the Aegean for about two weeks and then head to Haifa, Israel, before heading stateside.
Mr. Cohen was due to attend a dinner given in his honor last night by Mr. Tsohatzopoulos on a yacht sailing in the Thermaikos Gulf. He will arrive in Athens today for talks with Prime Minister Costas Simitis, the foreign ministry's leadership and main opposition leader Costas Karamanlis.
Source: Athens News Agency