Balkan donors praise 'other' Danube bridge

BRUSSELS, Mar 30, 2000 -- (Reuters) International donors on Wednesday praised plans to build a new Danube bridge linking Bulgaria and Romania but avoided debate on whether to fund another span over the river in Serbia.

Bodo Hombach, appointed by the West to oversee reconstruction of the Balkans, told a regional donors' conference here that building a bridge between Bulgaria and Romania was "a symbol for the radically improved regional and bilateral cooperation in southeastern Europe".

But U.S. officials said there could be no question of the West paying for a bridge at Novi Sad in northern Yugoslavia to replace one of three destroyed there by NATO during the Kosovo conflict, as long as Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic remained in power.

Wreckage still blocks the Danube at Novi Sad a year later and NATO allies are divided about what to do about it while their sanctions on Belgrade remain in place.

Most European Union countries support building a new bridge to replace the temporary pontoon which currently blocks the barges that should be moving trade goods.

Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner, current chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said the issue would not be resolved at the aid donors conference which ends on Thursday.

But she said EU financing was now in place if needed.

"The budgeting of the Danube has now been secured 85 percent by the European Commission," Ferrero-Waldner told reporters, adding that Austria and the Netherlands were contributing to the remainder.

"So we do hope now that the question of the bridge can be tackled in a very positive and non-bureaucratic way in order to help the people down there," she said.

Romania and Bulgaria ended eight years of wrangling this week with an agreement to build a new bridge over the Danube which will become part of a road and rail network from Berlin to Istanbul. The EU has agreed to finance the project as a symbol of radically improved regional cooperation in the Balkans. "At this conference I don't think the (Novi Sad) question will be finalized because it is for the Danube Commission," Ferrero-Waldner said.

"There is a pontoon bridge and if this bridge is not removed then free navigation is not possible and that is the real problem."

EU leaders called last week on the European Commission and Danube Commission "to start immediately on the steps necessary to clear the Danube for navigation by the summer".

European Commission President Romano Prodi said it would be shameful if the EU failed to help reopen Europe's major waterway at Novi Sad for political reasons.

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