BUCHAREST, Nov 17, 1999 -- (Reuters) The Southeast European Cooperation Initiative (SECI), a body set up to help 10 Balkan states fight organized crime and boost integration with the West, on Tuesday formally opened its headquarters in Romania.
"For the first time that all countries in the region are working together," said Nini Sapunaru, head of Romania's customs department.
"We work together to get ready to live in a common Europe," Sapunaru said at a ceremony to launch the SECI office in a sprawling marble palace built by late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu before his ouster and execution in a December 1989 anti-communist revolt.
Liaison officers from all member states will be posted to Bucharest and swap information in a bid to curb cross-border crime and rampant corruption in the often volatile area.
Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Macedonia, the ex-Soviet Republic of Moldova, Turkey and Romania signed the U.S.-sponsored SECI accord earlier this year. Croatia officially joined the group on Tuesday.
The group's eight ex-communist member states have yet to align their legal frameworks to Western standards and tighten border controls to boost their chances of joining the EU and NATO.
Arms and drug trafficking, money laundering, illegal financial operations and prostitution are still thriving in the region, 10 years after the fall of communism.
"The goal of this institution is not only to fight crime, but also to create an adequate climate for business and foreign investors," Romanian Interior Minister Constantin Dudu Ionescu told participants at the launch ceremony.
"If we want economic progress, we need to solve the crime problem which keeps investors away," SECI president Richard Schifter added.
Schifter, as adviser to U.S. president Bill Clinton on Central and Eastern Europe, has advocated creating the center since 1996.
As head of the new body, Schifter will not be permanently based in Bucharest. During his visit on Tuesday he said that Washington would contribute $400,000 to equip the center, which is to become fully operational next year with funds coming from member states.
The office will work closely with the international police organization Interpol and the World Customs Organization, officials said.
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