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(AP) - NATO announced the appointment Wednesday of a special representative for Central Asia and the Caucasus as part of the alliance's efforts to build closer ties with former Soviet republics in the strategically important region.

Former U.S. State Department official Robert F. Simmons Jr. will hold the post with responsibility "for establishing high-level working contacts with regional leaders," the alliance said in a statement.

Western allies see the region stretching from the Black Sea to the borders of Afghanistan as vital in the fight against terrorism. They have used bases in the region to support military operations in Afghanistan. The eight-former Soviet republics in the region are already part of NATO's "Partnership for Peace" outreach program offering political and military cooperation.

But while some, such as Georgia, have enthusiastically sought closer links, and even the prospect of NATO membership, others have been reluctant to build up closer ties. NATO itself has been wary of too close a relationship with some nations with dubious human rights records.

Difficulties in the building of ties in the region were underscored this week when NATO was forced to cancel military exercises in Azerbaijan at short notice when the country objected to the participation of officers from neighboring Armenia.

Although both countries are members of Partnership for Peace, relations between them remain tense a more than decade after the war between them over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh.
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