By David Alexander and Adrian Croft
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel expressed concern on Thursday about a possible north-south divide in NATO and urged the alliance to tackle multiple security issues at once rather than focusing on only one.
Hagel, making his final appearance at NATO as U.S. defense chief, said the alliance faced several challenges, including violent extremism on its southern rim, Russian aggression in Ukraine and training security forces in Afghanistan.
"I am very concerned by the suggestion that this alliance can choose to focus on only one of these areas as our top priority," Hagel told a news conference. "And I worry about the potential for division between our northern and southern allies."
Hagel's remarks came as NATO allies, especially along the northern tier of Europe, are concerned about responding to Russian aggression in Ukraine and Moscow's threatening moves along its northwestern frontier.
In southern Europe, countries like Spain and Italy worry about threats from Africa and the Middle East and believe NATO needs to focus more energy there to deal with extremism and trafficking in drugs, weapons and people.
"It's a growing sort of divide that we’re seeing happen between north and south," said one U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official said Hagel had raised the issue at a lunch with other NATO defense ministers, some of whom voiced similar concerns. The U.S. defense chief later mentioned the issue at his news conference.
"The alliance’s ability to meet all these challenges at once, to the east, to the south and out-of-area, is NATO’s charge for the future," Hagel said.
"This is a time for unity, shared purpose and wise, long-term investments across the spectrum of military capability," he added. "We must address all the challenges to this alliance, all together and all at once."
Hagel spoke as NATO defense ministers met to sign off on a network of command centers in eastern Europe to rapidly reinforce the region in the event of any threat from Russia, as well as two new regional headquarters and a bigger rapid reaction force.
They were expected to agree to more than double the size of NATO's existing rapid reaction force - to 30,000 soldiers from 13,000 - and to flesh out details of a 5,000-strong "spearhead" force with a faster reaction time of only a few days.
(Reporting by David Alexander and Adrian Croft; Editing by Tom Heneghan)