CEOL
Montenegro and Albania sign landmark accords

PODGORICA, Apr 26, 2000 -- (Reuters) The Yugoslav republic of Montenegro on Tuesday signed two agreements to boost bilateral relations with Albania, snubbing Belgrade which last year broke off diplomatic ties with Albania.

Montenegrin Foreign Minister Branko Lukovac and his Albanian counterpart Paskal Milo signed an agreement on economic, trade and cultural cooperation as well as a protocol on cooperation between their two ministries.

"We have opened a new era in relations between our two countries and created the institutional basis for future cooperation," said Milo, the first Albanian foreign minister to visit Montenegro in 50 years.

Milo referred to Montenegro - whose population of 650,000 includes some 45,000 ethnic Albanians - as a country, highlighting the coastal republic's growing independence from Belgrade.

Montenegro, Serbia's junior partner in the Yugoslav federation, has edged ever further away from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's federal government since Western-leaning Milo Djukanovic was elected president in 1997.

It has stepped up efforts to establish independent links with countries in the region, circumventing Yugoslavia's international isolation under Milosevic.

MONTENEGRO, ALBANIA PLAN PROJECTS

The two sides said they would work on joint projects as part of the European Union-sponsored Stability Pact for southeast Europe, including road, railroad and power projects.

"We rightly expect European countries, especially those behind the pact, to offer full support to programs that we initiate," Lukovac said.

Cooperation would expand to include tourism, education and health.

Another border crossing opening was also planned in the future. In February, Montenegro reopened its border with Albania, shut down in 1997 after Albania plunged into anarchy, and earlier this month the republic's police agreed to cooperate with their Albanian counterparts on fighting crime.

Yugoslavia and Albania have a long history of strained relations, especially over Serbia's majority ethnic-Albanian populated province of Kosovo.

Belgrade broke off diplomatic relations with Tirana at the start of NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in March last year, intended to end Serb repression of Kosovo Albanians.

Milo said Kosovo's future status remained to be resolved, while Lukovac said the province was part of Serbia and Yugoslavia.

"But a long time will pass during which the presence of international forces will be necessary in Kosovo," Lukovac said.

Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, now controlled by NATO-led international peacekeepers and UN administrators, want full independence from Yugoslavia.



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