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10 Countries Sign Treaty to Enter EU - 2003-04-16

Ten countries have signed a treaty in Athens Wednesday paving the way for their entry into the European Union. Europe's leaders gathered in Athens promising to heal the rift that long separated the continent's western nations from the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Seven of the 10 new members have emerged from behind what used to be the Iron Curtain and many delegates at the ceremony spoke of bridging at last a historic east-west divide that had split Europe since World War II.

But for many observers, it is more recent divisions over the war on Iraq that are the greatest preoccupation for participating nations.

And the 15 current EU members plus the 10 entrants acknowledged as much in a statement declaring their collective commitment to facing up to our global responsibilities in the wake of the war in Iraq.

These words belie a continent still smarting from internal bickering over Iraq, but suggest that leaders - at least for the moment - have agreed to put aside their differences.

Aides to Tony Blair let it be known that the British prime minister had accidentally bumped into French President Jacques Chirac while out taking a breath of fresh air on the sidelines of the summit. The two men apparently proceeded to have an impromptu and entirely amicable discussion about Iraq and the Middle East for nearly 30 minutes.

The Greek hosts of the ceremony had been desperately hoping for such a diplomatic armistice between the two men, who clashed bitterly in the run-up to war.

And as one by one, representatives of seven former Eastern Bloc countries plus Slovenia, Malta and Greek Cyprus stepped up to sign two copies of the massive new treaty which heralds their entry into the EU, the carefully orchestrated event seemed to be unfolding without a hitch.

Not everything did go as planned however, as some anti-war protesters engaged in violent clashes with police only a few hundred meters from the signing ceremony. The running battles were carried out between massed ranks of security forces and small bands of agitators concealed within largely peaceful demonstrations.

As the political delegates strolled calmly through the colonnaded surroundings of the ancient Athens marketplace, tear gas and gasoline bombs were flying through the air nearby.

With helicopters hovering overhead, rioters hurled volleys of stones at the U.S. and British embassies and occupied the offices of British Airways, erecting a sign that read: "Killers, Imperialists."

But the disturbances are unlikely to mar for long an enlargement ceremony carried out under bright blue Athenian skies, at which Europe's top politicians hope to have put the diplomatic storm clouds behind them.