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Balkan Countries Pledge to Tighten Border Security - 2003-05-24


Balkan leaders have pledged to work with NATO on strengthening border controls, especially around Serbia and Montenegro and other countries, to combat crime. The agreement was reached at the two-day regional conference on border security and management. The meeting ended Friday in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. Officials from seven Balkan nations worked out a plan Friday to tackle the growing cross border trade in humans, drugs and weapons, that followed the collapse of Communism and Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

They met in the Macedonian resort town of Ohrid which already boasts diplomatic breakthroughs, including a 2001 NATO-backed peace accord that ended an ethnic Albanian insurgency in the former Yugoslav republic.

The leaders, of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro and Romania also pledged to reinforce border security which NATO sees as inadequate.

Earlier NATO Secretary-General George Robertson told the conference participants that "organized crime can too easily cross borders."

Mr. Robertson suggested that a lack of border security was "creating ideal conditions for drug smuggling, gun-running, human trafficking, terrorism and political violence."

The assassination of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic in mid-March in Belgrade, attributed by police to organized crime, has underscored post-war tensions in the Balkans.

There has also been concern that groups linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network led by Osama bin Laden, had access to weapons and training camps in, for instance, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In addition, human rights organizations have expressed concern that lax border controls and corruption lead to growing trade in Eastern European women, who are often forced into prostitution.

A recent report by the New York based organization Human Rights Watch notes that in countries such as Bosnia-Herzegovina thousands of women from mainly impoverished countries such as Moldova, Romania and Ukraine are "sold as chattel."

The European Commission said this week that tackling organized crime must become a priority for countries in the former Yugoslav federation as they are seeking entry into the European Union, where internal borders have mainly disappeared.

While the conference was seen as only a first step to improve security in the volatile Balkans, Macedonian Prime Minister Branko Cvrvenkovski was confident the meeting would help fight various forms of smuggling, which he described as "fundamental cancers" in Balkan societies.

However the gathering was overshadowed by news that Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi of Kosovo was prevented from attending the talks. Kosovo is often blamed for cross-border crime by neighboring countries.

His invitation was canceled by United Nations Kosovo administrator Michael Steiner after the Albanian majority in Kosovo's assembly broke the rules by adopting a resolution extolling a pro-independence guerrilla and political movement.

Serbia has made clear it wants to keep the U.N. administered province within its territory, while ethnic Albanian leaders favor independence.