Stoltenberg sees progress in Sweden's NATO bid, talks to resume in March

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By Sabine Siebold, Andrew Gray and Johnny Cotton

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday he saw progress in stalled talks with Turkey on Sweden's membership bid and aimed to have both Sweden and Finland join the alliance by the time of its July summit.

Stoltenberg told Reuters he and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan had agreed that Turkey, Finland and Sweden would meet at NATO headquarters mid-March "to address the challenges we face when it comes to Turkish ratification of the Swedish accession protocol".

Stoltenberg, who met Erdogan last week in Ankara, sounded more upbeat on the topic than in past months.

"I see progress," he said in an interview. "My aim is to have both Finland and Sweden as full members by the NATO summit," due to take place in Lithuania from July 11-12.

Sweden and Finland applied last year to join the trans-Atlantic alliance after Russia invaded Ukraine, but Sweden faced unexpected objections from Turkey.

Ankara accuses Stockholm of harbouring what Turkey considers members of terrorist groups, and has demanded their extradition as a step towards giving Sweden's NATO membership its green light.

Talks between Finland, Sweden and Turkey have been stalled since January after a copy of the Koran was burned outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm by Rasmus Paludan, leader of the Danish far-right political party Hard Line.

Turkey and Hungary are the only NATO allies that have not yet ratified the membership of Finland and Sweden, though Budapest has said it aims to take that step for both countries in early March.

Stoltenberg said that, regardless of the outstanding ratification, both Nordic states were safer than before their NATO application.

"As part of the accession process, several NATO allies, including the United States, have issued bilateral security assurances," he said.

"So it's inconceivable that Finland or Sweden will face any military threats from Russia without NATO reacting."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said there would be no threat to Russia if Sweden and Finland joined NATO, but that Moscow would respond if the U.S.-led alliance bolstered military infrastructure in the two Nordic countries.

He has repeatedly cited the post-Soviet enlargement of the NATO alliance eastwards toward his borders as a reason for what he called Russia's "special military operation" in Ukraine.

(Reporting by Sabine Siebold, Andrew Gray and Johnny Cotton; Editing by Andrew Heavens)