NATO signed up seven eastern European nations to become members Wednesday, an expansion hailed as a historic reunification of the continent after decades of Cold War division.
In an emotional ceremony at NATO headquarters, foreign ministers from Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Estonia and Latvia approved the formal protocols of adhesion.
NATO invited the seven to join at a November summit in Prague, capital of the Czech Republic. The countries will become members in May 2004 if their parliaments ratify the treaties. They will be covered by the alliance's core security guarantee that states an attack on one member is an attack on all.
"Today we feel like winners," said Romania Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana. "A dream of generations of Romanians has come true."
Ministers from the three Baltic states that broke free of Soviet rule in 1990 stressed in particular the importance of NATO's security umbrella.
"Latvia will never again stand alone in the face of a threat," said Foreign Minister Sandra Kalniete.
Estonia Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland called the accession of seven newcomers "a historic step for a Europe free, whole and at peace."
Under NATO procedures, the ministers did not sign the protocols but approved the signing by diplomats from the current 19 members.
"Future historians will recognize that this decision to open NATO's doors has been a turning point in the building of a Europe reunited and free," NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson said.
The United States firmly supported NATO's post-Cold War eastward expansion. In turn, it received strong backing from most newcomers in the run-up to the war against Iraq -- in marked contrast to opposition from long-standing allies France, Germany and Belgium.
Further underlining the demise of Cold War divisions, five of the new NATO members will join the European Union in May 2004 along with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, which became NATO members in 1999.