Croatian, Albanian flags raised over NATO base

By SANDRA JONTZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 25, 2009

BAGNOLI, Italy — For the first time, Albania and Croatia raised their national flags Friday at the Allied Joint Force Command NATO base near Naples, wrapping up the process of the nations’ accession into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

On April 1, Albania and Croatia officially joined NATO during a ceremony in Strasbourg, France, becoming the alliance’s 27th and 28th members.

"With each new accession, we achieve greater mutual cooperation and stability, which helps NATO shape the strategic environment in a positive way," said U.S. Adm. Mark Fitzgerald, commander of Allied Joint Force Command Naples. "The addition of Albania and Croatia into our NATO family demonstrates their shared commitment to lasting security and great Euro-Atlantic integration."

He praised France’s decision to return to the alliance after a 40-year absence, calling it a "symbol of a renewed European commitment to the alliance, which will strengthen our trans-Atlantic community even further."

Croatia and Albania already have a track record of meeting NATO’s military requirements, the countries’ defense ministers said, contributing troops in Afghanistan and to missions in the Balkans.

"They are a pillar to the alliance," said Giuseppe Cossiga, Italy’s undersecretary of defense.

The inclusion of Albania and Croatia in NATO could prompt other nations to join, said Branko Vukelic, Croatian minister of defense.

"We gather under the raised flags to express ... that our desire and will is freedom and peace," said Gazmend Oketa, Albania’s minister of defense.

A soldier hoists the Croatian flag, center, for the first time Friday at the Allied Joint Force Command NATO base in Bagnoli, Italy. On April 1, both Albania and Croatia joined NATO as the 27th and 28th member nations.

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