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Tillerson to meet NATO on March 31, ending no-show furor

By Robin Emmott and Lesley Wroughton

BRUSSELS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will meet NATO foreign ministers at a rescheduled gathering on March 31, a senior State Department official said on Friday, ending a furor over his earlier decision to skip the event.

Reuters exclusively reported on Monday that Tillerson had decided not to attend his first meeting with the ministers, originally scheduled for April 5-6 - raising fears about the new U.S. administration's commitment to the military alliance.

But the State Department official said the meeting in Brussels had been brought forward and would now go ahead. There was no official statement from NATO.

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Tillerson's potential no-show had increased unease caused by U.S. President Donald Trump's description of NATO as "obsolete" during his election campaign.

Trump has since said he strongly supports the alliance, but in interviews and speeches he continues to air grievances over what he see as Europe's failure to pay its fair share of protecting the West.

Tillerson met many of the NATO foreign ministers in Washington this week at a gathering of the coalition fighting Islamic State militants, but the meeting in Brussels would be his first formal NATO ministerial.

Given the U.S. role as the de facto head of the alliance, it is rare for the United States' top diplomat to miss a NATO meeting. The last time was during the Iraq war in 2003, when Colin Powell was forced to cancel at the last moment.

Tillerson, a former top executive at Exxon Mobil Corp who worked with the Russian government, originally decided to attend a U.S. visit by the Chinese president instead of the April NATO meeting, Reuters reported.

"The Secretary of State will visit NATO in Brussels on Friday, March 31st. The visit will come after his trip to Ankara, Turkey. Details about his schedule are forthcoming," the State Department official said on Friday.

(Editing by Julia Fioretti and Andrew Heavens)

 
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