BRUSSELS (Reuters) - NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Friday hailed Turkey's decision to move ahead with ratifying Finland's bid for membership of the military alliance and said he was confident Sweden would join soon too.
In a telephone interview with Reuters, Stoltenberg said President Tayyip Erdogan's announcement that Turkey's parliament will start ratifying Finland's accession to NATO was "a good day for everyone that believes in NATO enlargement".
"Finnish membership will strengthen NATO, it will strengthen Finnish security. It will also strengthen Swedish security," he said.
In response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Sweden and Finland applied to join NATO but faced objections from Turkey, which joined in 1952.
Erdogan said on Friday that Finland had won Turkey's blessing after taking steps to keep its promises to crack down on what Ankara sees as terrorists and to free up defence exports.
But Turkey has kept Sweden's ratification on hold, arguing that Stockholm harbours members of what Turkey calls terrorist groups, particularly the Kurdish militant group PKK - a charge Sweden denies.
Stoltenberg said Erdogan had told him on Friday evening that he was willing to continue consultations on Sweden's membership.
"I'm confident also that Sweden will join soon, and I will work hard for that," he said.
NATO officials say having both Sweden and Finland as members will bring two highly capable militaries into the alliance and strengthen its northeastern flank.
Abandoning long traditions of neutrality, Finnish and Swedish leaders concluded after Russia's invasion of Ukraine that membership of NATO, with its collective defence pact, would make their countries safer.
Stoltenberg said he hoped Finland would now join NATO before Turkey's elections in May and that Sweden could be a member by the time of an alliance summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, in July.
Hungary is the only other NATO member not to have ratified the two membership applications. Hungary's ruling party has said it backs the two bids but has delayed formal steps to approve them.
Stoltenberg said he had urged Turkey and Hungary to ratify both membership applications.
(Reporting by Andrew Gray; editing by Grant McCool)