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North American defense ministers launch joint security forum

By David Alexander

OTTAWA (Reuters) - North America's three defense ministers declared their first-ever dialogue on common security threats on Tuesday an "historic occasion," even though their main accomplishment was to agree to continue regular discussions.

Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay, who hosted the gathering in Ottawa, said he and his counterparts from Mexico and the United States decided to develop a common assessment of threats facing the continent and to cooperate to address them.

Key among the common security concerns are illegal drug trafficking, organized crime, disaster response and cyber security - a growing concern in a region where officials say critical infrastructure like electrical grids often do not stop at the borders.

"Through our discussions today we were able to identify a number of opportunities to better coordinate our efforts on issues related to national defense," MacKay told a news conference.

"We discussed the need to advance a common understanding of the threats facing North America," he added. "We will work together to develop a trilateral threat assessment for the continent that will provide the basis for common understanding and approach as we work to address these challenges."

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the gathering had provided an "unprecedented opportunity to try to bring together our nations in a common approach to continental security."

"All of us have been part of what I think has been a very historic occasion," he told a news conference. "This is the first trilateral meeting of defense ministers from the United States, Canada and Mexico."

Panetta and MacKay held bilateral talks with each other and also with Mexico's defense and navy secretaries, General Guillermo Galvan Galvan and Admiral Francisco Saynaz Mendoza, before all the ministers met together.

"For Mexico," Galvan told the news conference, "fighting organized crime and narco-trafficking represents our highest priority." More than 50,000 people have been killed in clashes between drug cartels and Mexico's government over the past five years.

Panetta said he and his Mexican counterparts had "a great discussion about the effort against the cartels and how we can continue to improve our efforts against them." He said they also discussed improving the military response to disaster relief, as well as military training and exchange programs.

Senior U.S. defense officials, speaking ahead of the meeting, said they thought its main accomplishment would be to agree to institutionalize the forum as a way to address hemispheric security issues.

Once accomplished, they said, the three sides could begin developing a common assessment of the threats they agree on.

"What I'm hoping to do is to establish with them a format, a forum here where we can have regular sessions that focus on an agenda and we do this on a regular basis," Panetta told reporters ahead of the meeting.

(Reporting By David Alexander; Editing by Paul Simao)

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