EU backs clearing Danube, bridge's future unclear

BRUSSELS, Mar 31, 2000 -- (Reuters) The European Commission said on Thursday it would help pay to clear the Danube of bridges blown up during NATO's Kosovo campaign but would not contribute to the cost of a new crossing while sanctions remain on Serbia.

However, the West's coordinator of aid to the Balkans predicted a bridge at Novi Sad, Serbia, would be built despite divisions between the United States and some of its NATO allies, notably Germany, over the project.

"This bridge is an 'auxiliary, humanitarian bridge' which is necessary in order to remove the pontoon bridge (at Novi Sad) which is blocking the Danube," Bodo Hombach, head of the West's "Stability Pact" for southeast Europe told reporters at the end of a two-day Balkans donors conference.

"This bridge will be built. The financing is there," he said. "There's a small conflict, which I do not take terribly seriously, which is 'what is an auxiliary, humanitarian bridge?' (The answer is) It's a masterpiece of diplomatic architecture."

Novi Sad's three bridges were destroyed by NATO bombing last year, blocking Europe's major waterway and tying up bulk freight shipping between Yugoslavia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania.

EU leaders said last week it was one of their priorities to clear the river before summer to help restart the region's economy.

Catherine Day, a senior European Commission official, said the EU executive would pay for 85 percent of a 22 million euro ($21.01 million) project to clear the river of debris. She said, however, no money would go towards a new bridge.

"We understand a number of bilateral donors are investigating funding the building of a new bridge, but it's not part of a Commission-funded project," Day said.

Germany has earmarked bilateral aid towards building a new bridge at Novi Sad. Austria, where many barge operators are based, and the Netherlands are also contributing to clearing the waterway.

Hombach said money for a new bridge was being funneled via authorities in Novi Sad, a town controlled by political parties opposed to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

He said "if the Yugoslav government thinks it can take the money itself...they are making a big mistake. Nobody will allow that to happen".

Hombach's spokesman said later, however, the bridge project also faced other obstacles, alluding to the West's divisions.

"There's still discussion required in the international community about the best way forward," he said.

Original article