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Donors pledge 2.4 Bln Euros for Balkans

BRUSSELS, Mar 31, 2000 -- (Reuters) International donors pledged on Thursday 2.4 billion euros ($2.3 billion) in economic aid that they hope will sow the seeds of stability in the volatile Balkan region.

The money will help countries still reeling from the impact of last year's war in Kosovo which disrupted lives, communications and trading links across central Europe.

Water schemes in Albania, roads in Montenegro and electricity connections to Bosnia are among the projects to be financed the organizers of the fundraising meeting said.

"More than 2.4 billion euros has been pledged or committed today," said a statement from the European Union and World Bank, which jointly hosted the two-day meeting attended by 47 countries and 36 international organizations.

The total far exceeded the meeting's target of 1.8 billion euros needed for a series of "quick start" - mainly infrastructure - projects over the next 12 months.

European Commission official Catherine Day said work on the first project - a heavily congested border crossing at Blace between Macedonia and Kosovo - would start on Friday.

The crossing became known to television viewers around the world last year when it was overwhelmed by thousands of Kosovo Albanian refugees fleeing repression by Yugoslav forces under President Slobodan Milosevic.

Blace, on the only viable road into Kosovo from the south, was then used by NATO-led peacekeepers to enter the province last June. It has remained overloaded ever since.

Money will also be used to demobilize troops in Bosnia, itself recovering from an inter-ethnic war between 1992-95, for a landmine awareness campaign and on a feasibility study for a television network around the region, which remains mainly the preserve of national broadcasters.

Organizers said five million euros would be used to plan a second bridge over the Danube between Romania and Bulgaria, which have begun accession talks to join the EU.

World Bank official Johannes Linn told a news conference around 70 percent of the pledges could be given in the form of outright grants.

PRESSURE ON SERBIA, MONTENEGRO REWARDED

European Commissioner for External Affairs Chris Patten said earlier that in the case of Serbia, the "serious money" would remain locked away until Milosevic, an indicted war criminal, was removed from power.

But the EU would press on with humanitarian aid to Serbia, while keeping in place most sanctions imposed over the Kosovo conflict.

Montenegro, Serbia's smaller partner in Yugoslavia, was rewarded as far as possible at the conference for its pro-democratic policies, but because of its status as part of Yugoslavia did not receive World Bank aid.

In Zagreb, Foreign Minister Tonino Picula said Croatia had been granted $135 million for five quick-start projects.

These included constructing a stretch of motorway between Zagreb and the Hungarian border, rebuilding a railway line in eastern Slavonia and ecology and demining projects.

"The success of the conference surpassed all expectations," Picula said.



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