NATO Chief Seeks Arctic Talks

REYKJAVIK, Iceland -- An Arctic thaw will open up sea routes and competition for lucrative energy reserves, and negotiations are needed with Russia to prevent a future conflict, NATO's chief said Thursday.

NATO commanders and lawmakers meeting in Iceland's capital said a military presence in the region would eventually be needed as standoffs between powerful nations unfold.

"I would be the last one to expect military conflict -- but there will be a military presence," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told delegates. "It should be a military presence that is not overdone, and there is a need for political cooperation and economic cooperation."

The NATO chief said talks involving Russia, NATO and other nations are the key to avoiding a future conflict. De Hoop Scheffer is expected to meet Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov at a security conference in Munich on Feb. 6.

The opening up of Arctic sea routes once only navigable by icebreakers threatens to complicate relations between countries with competing claims to Arctic territory -- particularly once inaccessible areas become ripe for exploration for oil and natural gas.

The United States, Russia and Canada are among the countries attempting to claim jurisdiction over Arctic territory alongside Nordic nations. Analysts say China is also likely to join a rush to capture oil and gas trapped under the region's ice.

"Several Arctic rim countries are strengthening their capabilities, and military activity in the High North region has been steadily increasing," de Hoop Scheffer said.

But he played down increased Russian bomber patrols over the North Atlantic and the planting of the Russian flag on the seabed, describing them as not even a "nuisance."

Russia in 2007 planted a titanium flag on the floor of the sea under the North Pole, claiming an area that the government estimates holds 10 billion tons of oil-equivalent along with gold, nickel and diamonds.

In a throwback to the Cold War, Russia has stepped up strategic bomber patrols in northern latitudes and has begun training troops for combat in temperatures that can plunge to below minus 57 degrees Celsius.

"All parties, and that includes ourselves but also our Russian friends and partners, should respect airspace when they decide to send aircraft into the air on patrolling missions, but I do not think that as we speak we either find ourselves in a nuisance or let alone in a threat environment," de Hoop Scheffer said.

Russia and Canada have already traded verbal shots over each other's intentions in the Arctic.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he would firm up control of the disputed Northwest Passage, while President Dmitry Medvedev seeks to lay claim to Arctic territory equivalent to the size of France.

Some scientists predict that Arctic waters could be ice-free in summers by 2013, decades earlier than previously thought.

"The end of the Cold War resulted in a marked reduction in military activity in the High North -- Iceland would like it to stay that way," Iceland's outgoing prime minister, Geir Haarde, told the conference Thursday.

(AP, Bloomberg)