updated 4/1/2009 2:37:00 PM ET 2009-04-01T18:37:00

Albania and Croatia became NATO's newest members Wednesday in a historic expansion into the volatile western Balkans where the alliance fought its first war a decade ago.

The two countries will be ceremonially inducted into NATO during a summit Friday and Saturday in Strasbourg, France, and Kehl, Germany, to mark the alliance's 60th anniversary. The two new states take total member nations to 28.

"Albania and Croatia have worked very hard to meet alliance standards with regard to democracy, and the reform of their militaries," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said.

NATO forces have operated in the Balkans since the mid-1990s, when thousands of peacekeepers were sent to Bosnia in the aftermath of a four-year civil war between Serbs, Muslims and Croats in which nearly 100,000 people perished.

In 1999, the alliance mounted its first combat operation when its air forces bombed Serbia to end Belgrade's crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in what was then Serbia's southern province of Kosovo.

'Contributors to regional stability'
Albania and Croatia have "overcome a difficult period in their history to become contributors to regional stability and international security," Appathurai said.

"They will now benefit from collective security the alliance offers, but they will also bear the responsibility that collective security requires."

Despite Croatia having a military force of only about 20,000 troops and Albania only 14,000, Croatia has sent 530 soldiers to the NATO-led force in Afghanistan and Albania another 140, according to NATO.

Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha on Tuesday described joining NATO as the most important act in the country's history for nearly a century.

Analysts say NATO membership sends a signal that the countries are politically stable.

"Membership will be good in economic terms, coming at the times of financial crisis, as it would be a positive sign for investors," said Croatian economic expert Drazen Kalogjera.

Last expansion was in 2004
Founded in 1949, NATO has twice taken on new members since the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, its Soviet-dominated Cold War foe. Seven former communist nations entered in 2004, following Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic who joined in 1999.

In contrast to the alliance's previous eastward expansion which infuriated Russia, Moscow has not objected to the inclusion of Albania and Croatia.

The former six-member Yugoslav federation broke free of the Soviet Union in 1948, while Albania followed suit in the early 1960s.

But NATO's latest enlargement was marred by the rejection of Macedonia, whose accession was blocked by member Greece. Athens objects to the neighboring nation's use of the name Macedonia, saying it implies a territorial claim on the adjacent Greek province of the same name.

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