NATO resumes diplomatic contacts with Russia

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, left, conducts a media roundtable at his  hotel with reporters Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008 before attending a variety of NATO Defense Minister functions in London. (AP Photo/Paul J. Richards,Pool)

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, left, conducts a media roundtable at his hotel with reporters Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008 before attending a variety of NATO Defense Minister functions in London. (AP Photo/Paul J. Richards,Pool)

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) -- Russia's foreign minister said Friday that Moscow will insist on determining the cause of the August war in Georgia as NATO and Russia restarted diplomatic contacts that have been suspended since then.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and Dmitry Rogozin, Moscow's ambassador to the alliance, met over lunch Friday in the first high-level meeting after a four-month hiatus caused by the war.

The informal meeting aimed to explore how formal contacts could be restarted. Russian diplomats in Brussels said they did not expect any specific agreement on whether to restart the NATO-Russia Council - a consultative panel set up in 2002 to improve relations between the former Cold War foes.

"They agreed to look at ways to restart the engagement," said NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero. She said the two sides would look to hold an informal meeting of the council at ambassadorial level next month.

Rogozin said his lunch with de Hoop Scheffer in an Italian restaurant near NATO headquarters was a step toward "normalization" of relations.

"The most difficult thing is to make the first step," he told reporters. "We are at the beginning of the difficult route to restore trust."

In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Russian side wanted to discuss the root causes of the brief war in which Russian forces occupied large swaths of Georgia after Georgian troops shelled and invaded the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

The United States and some East European nations have blamed Moscow for causing the bloodshed, but Moscow says its military actions were defensive and in response to Georgia's aggression.

"Now, when our NATO colleagues talk about restoring relations, we will insist that the restoration of ties starts with the discussion of the causes of the Caucasus crisis which our NATO partners dodged in August," Lavrov said.

Despite NATO's decision to suspend high-level contacts with Moscow after the August war, cooperation continued on common issues such as combating piracy off the Somali coast.

Moscow also has agreed to let the alliance use its territory to resupply the 62,000 Western troops in Afghanistan - an issue of growing concern to NATO because of attacks by pro-Taliban forces on transport convoys in Pakistan.

NATO foreign ministers agreed earlier this month to gradually resume high-level contacts with Moscow.

"We signaled our unhappiness with Russia using military force to invade Georgia (and) change borders by force of arms," Kurt Volker, U.S. ambassador to NATO, said in a statement Friday. "Yet we also signaled a desire for a cooperative relationship with Russia."

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Associated Press correspondent Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

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