NATO leaders resumed their summit Wednesday with a pledge to stay the course in Afghanistan despite mounting casualties and the continued refusal of some governments to send their troops into combat in the most dangerous regions.

"We will stand with the Afghan people for the long term," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told the meeting.

Leaders will declare that a new 25,000-member rapid response force designed as the spearhead of a modernized NATO military is ready for action after four years of preparation, de Hoop Scheffer announced.

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NATO officials said they also received assurances at the leaders' dinner Tuesday night that all would allow their troops in the 32,800-strong allied stabilization force in Afghanistan to come to the aid of allied units in trouble anywhere in the country.

"In emergencies we are willing to help, as we have done in the past," German officials quoted Chancellor Angela Merkel as telling the meeting.

The top allied commander, Gen. James L. Jones, said allies had given other commitments to reduce "caveats" restricting the use of their troops in Afghanistan, and officials said at least three nations offered to send more troops.

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But beyond emergency rescue operations, Germany, France, Italy and Spain insisted their troops would not be joining the British, Canadian, Dutch and American troops on the front line of the battle with the resurgent Taliban in the south and east.

"This has been our clear position from the beginning," Italian Premier Romano Prodi told journalists after the dinner late Tuesday. "That also goes for the French president, the German chancellor and the Spanish."

Nations with troops in the south and east have raised concern that such limits on troop deployment risks undermining alliance solidarity and public support for the mission, while only some allies are taking most casualties.

"Losing young men and women is the surest way that can happen," Canada's Foreign Minister Peter MacKay said Tuesday. Progress "can still be eroded ... if you have people coming home in coffins," he said.

Canada has suffered 44 fatalities in Afghanistan -- 36 this year alone. Most occurred after NATO troops moved into the south this summer.

Underscoring the dangers, two more NATO soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb Tuesday in Logar province south of Kabul. NATO did not immediately release the nationalities of those victims. The leaders started their formal session with a minute of silence in memory of soldiers fallen in NATO missions.

"Afghanistan is NATO's most important military operation," U.S. President George W. Bush said Tuesday. "By standing together in Afghanistan we will protect our people, defend our freedom and send a clear message to the extremists -- the forces of freedom and decency will prevail."

Bush also raised the pressure on allies to ease restrictions on what their troops can do in Afghanistan.

NATO officials said the leaders did agree on the need to follow up military operations in Afghanistan with speedy development aid and help to the Afghan government to build up the local police and judiciary, along with roads, hospitals and schools. They agreed to coordinate more closely with the European Union, United Nations and the Afghan authorities by setting up a "contact group" to dovetail civilian and military operations.

The leaders also were expected to commit to boosting training and equipment supplies to the Afghan army in the hope that stronger local forces could eventually allow NATO to start pulling out.

Turning to other issues, the second day of the summit was considering inviting old enemy Serbia -- along with its neighbors Bosnia and Montenegro -- to join an alliance cooperation program designed to prepare them for eventual membership. However, NATO was expected to give the Serbs and Bosnians a yearlong deadline to capture war crimes suspects, or risk suspension of the program.

Three other Balkan nations -- Croatia, Macedonia and Albania -- were expected to get a clearer signal that they could be allowed to join the alliance at the next NATO summit in 2008.

Differences remained, however, on the use of the force. Latvian President Vaira Vike-Frieberga complained that the NATO Response Force was not being used to back up the troops in Afghanistan, but France has been reluctant to use the NRF there.

The allies were expected to water down U.S. proposals for increased NATO training for officers from Arab nations and the development of a "global partnership" with Australia, Japan and other Asia-Pacific democracies.

Instead of setting up a NATO military school in the Middle East, the allies were likely to agree only to offer more places to Arab officers at academies in Europe.

NATO was expected to offer more political talks and military cooperation with the Pacific nations, but without setting up a formal partnership like those it has with former Soviet or Middle Eastern counties.

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