Danube body set to clear Nato bomb debris

BUDAPEST, May 19, 2000 -- (Reuters) The Danube Commission said on Wednesday it had cleared a key hurdle to start removing NATO bombing debris from the river by winter and end a shipping bottleneck in Serbia.

"We have reached a decision which will allow us to substantially start on the works this year," commission President Helmut Strasser told Reuters after a meeting of the its project committee in Budapest.

The 11-nation Danube Commission is an inter-governmental body that oversees navigation on the waterway.

Strasser said the agreement on a management and financial structure for the project should allow the European Union to release the bulk of 26 million euros needed to clear the debris of three bridges bombed into the river last year at the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad.

The bridges were destroyed during NATO's 11-week campaign to force Yugoslavia to relinquish control of Kosovo.

The EU is expected to provide 85 percent of the funding, with other sources making up the difference.

Reopening the river would mark the end of a frustrating period for shippers the length of Europe's second longest waterway, which has been blocked to through traffic for more than a year, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.

"I think this is a major success," Strasser said. "I think today's decision will very quickly open the way to put into effect all the necessary managerial and financial mechanisms."

He said he expected it would take four to six weeks to get the management structure in place, and another six weeks for tenders to go out, adding, "I believe that it will take five months before work locally can start."

But Strasser said the commission had not dealt with the thorny issue of a pontoon bridge which has been erected at Novi Sad. If the bridge stayed in place after the river was cleared, traffic would remain blocked.

"We never touched on that issue," he said. But a solution must be found or the money would have been spent in vain.

"We have the alternative to spend 26 million euros for nothing by not putting a bridge...or we do nothing at all and leave it as it is, which nobody wishes," Strasser said.

The United States is known to strongly oppose international funding for a new bridge in Novi Sad, saying it would violate sanctions. Yugoslavia says there must be a way to cross the river, and it has no money to pay for a new bridge.

Strasser said some 60,000 people a day used the pontoon bridge to cross the Danube at Novi Sad, which is bisected by the river, and the span also carried heavy truck traffic and cars.

A compromise solution might be to build a bridge that would not be permanent but could carry traffic for a limited time.

"I think any reasonable man will admit this has to be done," he said.

Western diplomats said the Novi Sad bridge issue could still prove to be a major obstacle to reopening the river.

"It still remains a question as to whether or not the Belgrade regime maintains the construction of at least one new bridge as a precondition to beginning work to clear the Danube," one Western source said.

Original article