By William J Kole,The Associated Press

Expanding Nato to take in Eastern Europe and the Baltics will help secure the world against the threat of global terrorism, the leaders of 10 nations pressing to join the alliance said Friday.

Meeting under heavy security at Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov's residence, the leaders of 10 East European and Baltic countries said the Sept. 11 attacks added urgency to their case for joining the 19-member alliance.

``The blows at the heart of the United States have shed new light on the need to consolidate strength against the new evil,'' Stoyanov said.

``Even if a global anti-terrorist alliance is created, it can't be successful without a strong NATO,'' he said. ``No nation is able to cope with the new threats single-handed.''

Russia has vehemently opposed the eastward expansion of NATO, which would bring the alliance to its doorstep. But this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin softened his opposition, suggesting that Russia and NATO could find common ground in the global fight against terrorism.

Stronger relations with emerging democracies are essential to counter the terrorist threat in Afghanistan, NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson said.

``Afghanistan is a safe haven for terrorists precisely because it does not have a viable state structure. It is a black hole,'' Robertson said. ``That is why NATO is engaged in southeast Europe - to prevent such black holes from emerging on our doorstep. ... The new democracies have demonstrated once again that they are not just fair-weather friends.''

Friday's meeting brought together the heads of state of potential newcomers Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Croatia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Macedonia and Albania. They issued a ``declaration of solidarity'' that ``our governments will fully support the war against terrorism.''

``The lesson we draw from the terrorist attacks in the United States is that the security of America and Europe is more intertwined than ever before,'' it said. ``The new democracies of Europe can help counter terrorist and criminal threats to the community of the West.''

It was their last gathering before a November 2002 summit in Prague, where NATO members are expected to clear the way for several new nations to join. Former Warsaw Pact members Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined in 1999.

``Your determination to stand side by side with the United States and the NATO alliance during this hour of trial sends a powerful message against the tyranny of terror,'' President Bush said in a message to the gathering. ``The United States supports NATO membership for all of Europe's new democracies - from the Baltics to the Black Sea - who share our values.''

On Thursday, the NATO allies granted the United States automatic and unlimited access to their airfields and ports and agreed to deploy ships and early-warning radar planes in Washington's campaign against terrorism.

Robertson said the process of enlarging NATO would continue and ``will not be held hostage to any terrorist campaign.''

But he cautioned the candidate countries: ``The strong logic of enlargement must be matched by the effort needed to make it happen. Aspirant countries must meet NATO's political and military standards before they can be admitted.''

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