ABC News
Danube body seeks EU funds to clear bombed bridges


BUDAPEST (Reuters) - The multinational Danube Commission asked the European Union Tuesday to help fund a $24-million cleanup of debris blocking the river since NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia.

The request was approved at a two-day meeting of the commission in Budapest without objection from Serbia, which had sought to link a clean-up to the rebuilding of bombed bridges.

But even the most optimistic officials doubt the river will reopen to traffic any time soon.

And commission President Hellmuth Strasser said delays in clearing the remains of eight bridges bombed by NATO left open the possibility that the Danube might freeze this winter, causing flooding in Serbia and southern Hungary.

As a concession to Serbia, the commission inserted a paragraph in its communique noting that even if the river is cleared of debris, an emergency pontoon bridge spanning the Danube at the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad will continue to block traffic unless other provisions are made.

The Danube, one of the most heavily used waterways in Europe, has been blocked to shipping along a vital stretch through Serbia since NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia between March and June last year.

Losses to the mostly central and eastern European countries that use the river are estimated at tens of millions of dollars.

At best, EU funding might be approved by mid-March and work could begin in the spring, commission sources said.

But until then, the danger of flooding remains, especially in view of a cold snap which has pushed temperatures in Serbia and Hungary well below freezing in the past few days.

"The danger of ice building up is very great if temperatures stay below freezing for about two weeks," Strasser said.

"We have been drawing everybody's attention to this problem since the autumn but nobody really believed us."

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