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Agence France Presse, 17 September 1999


The Danube countries continue to squabble over who should pay the bill for cleaning up the river in the wake of NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia that has cost the region tens of millions of dollars in lost trade.

Five months after the NATO campaign, the river is still blocked by ruined bridges and choked with pollution.

Access disputes between the different countries through which the Danube runs have made life even more difficult for commercial traffic trying to use it.

Transport ministers from Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine are to meet on Monday and Tuesday to discuss how to get the river traffic flowing again. Ukraine uses the Danube for trade as it passes through neighbouring Slovakia and Hungary.

"Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine have been hard hit, but Yugoslavia has also lost major sources of revenue because of the blockage of the river," said Vladimir Gligorov, a central Europe specialist at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (WIIW).

Serbia's waterways director Radivoje Jonic said Yugoslavia wanted NATO member states to pay for clearing up the river and rebuilding the bridges that their bombs destroyed during the 11-week air offensive.

In the meantime, the Yugoslav authorities have banned foreign boats from using the canals that bypass the Serbian sector of the Danube.

The waterway would stay closed "as long as the bottom of the Danube has not been cleared of the remains of the bridges destroyed by NATO at Novi Sad and at Smederevo," said Yugoslav transport ministry advisor Dragan Vancagovic.

Romania retaliated last week by blocking traffic on its stretch of the Danube, which neighbouring Bulgaria denounced as uncivilised because of the damage that caused to its trade.

Romania reckons its boats owners have lost 90 million dollars of trade, and thousands of people have been laid off.

Bulgaria, with four convoys of 25 boats trapped, is looking at running them under foreign flags so they can at least travel on the navigable parts of the river. But they have not ruled out reprisal action against Yugoslavia.

Croatia estimates it has lost 4.5 million dollars, while Hungary talks of several tens of millions of dollars, with 95 percent of its travel agencies reporting signficant losses on the lucrative Danube cruises.

Some business were facing bankruptcy while others were looking at laying off workers, said Hungary's Nepszabadsag newspaper.

Bosses at the Komarno dockyards in Slovakia have already laid off staff because of delayed orders that have cost them about 15 million dollars.

Germany's foreign ministry however declared their trade had hardly been touched: businesses were able to reroute goods by road or air.

Germany is ready to help clear up the damage caused by the ruined bridges - provided Yugoslavia also lends a hand.

Bucharest wants NATO to clean up the mess, while Bulgaria says all the Danube countries should share the cost.

Hungary meanwhile, wants those of its businesses hit by the river blockage to get a share of the reconstruction contracts for Yugoslavia.

Ukraine's minister of external trade, Sergei Drozd said his country was ready to play its part.

On Wednesday, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) said 11 million people were directly threatened by contamination of the river caused by the war over Kosovo. Petro-chemical plants were among the targets hit during the NATO bombing.

The Danube, at 2,850 kilometres (1,780 miles) is the second longest river in Europe after the Volga. It is the main waterway linking western Europe, from Germany, to the Balkans.

The Danube then passes through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, before moving north into Romania and running out into the Black Sea.

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