TAORMINA, Sicily – NATO defense ministers sought to calm Islamic anger over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad at a counterterrorism meeting Friday with Arab countries and Israel.
The United States and other NATO nations have been seeking partners in fighting terrorism by building ties with friendly nations in North Africa and the Middle East.
The meeting on counterterrorism cooperation with NATO's "Mediterranean partners" — Israel, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan and Mauritania — was called before the cartoons sparked protests across the Muslim world. But the controversy drew attention Friday.
"What is important here is the word respect, respect for each others' values," NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said. "Violence cannot be the answer."
German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said: "De-escalation is the message we have today ... We need to make clear how important it is to have a dialogue between cultures."
Despite the conciliatory tone, de Hoop Scheffer made clear that tentative efforts to build ties with the Palestinians had been ended by Hamas' victory in parliamentary elections.
"Contacts with Hamas are out of the question," he told a news conference.
The NATO chief said Algeria, Morocco and Israel "had shown a keen interest" in joining NATO naval patrols to deter potential terrorist smuggling of explosives and other materials through the Mediterranean into Europe.
The NATO ministers stressed the need to modernize their alliance so it can confront new threats such as civil unrest — highlighted this week by attacks on its peacekeepers in Afghanistan by Muslim protesters enraged by the publication of the Muhammad caricatures.
Allies agreed to find the troops needed for the NATO Response Force — an elite unit of between 20,000 and 25,000 troops able to deploy anywhere in the world within five days — to meet an October deadline.
Russia also plans to join that mission. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov came to Sicily accompanied by a cruiser so Russian sailors could train for the patrols with their NATO counterparts.
Ivanov sought to reassure NATO that Moscow's recent decision to deploy missiles to Belarus was not directed against the western alliance.
Russia said Thursday that it will deploy four air defense units capable of shooting down targets some 90 miles away, a military official said Thursday.
Russia has close ties with Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has become a pariah in the West for his crackdown on opposition and independent media.
Ministers could not agree over the formation of a pooled fund to pay for costs associated with NATO missions. Under the current system, member countries foot the bills for their operations under NATO.
On the sidelines of the meeting, Dutch Defense Minister Henk Kamp told The Associated Press that the Netherlands may send as many as 1,500 troops to Afghanistan on its two-year mission to expand NATO's peacekeeping operation into one of the most dangerous parts of the country.
"This will be a risky task for the Dutch armed forces and we will send a strong task force," Kamp said. "In total 1,300 to 1500 Dutch soldiers including our air force personnel."
Previous estimates have suggested the Dutch commitment would be between 1,200-1,400 strong, but more may be needed when the Netherlands take on southern area headquarters tasks in Kandahar for six months.