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Yugoslavia: Vienna Offers To Donate Danube Bridge

International commerce in the Danube River region has been blocked because of the destruction of bridges by NATO bombers attacking Yugoslav targets last year in the war over Kosovo. Now the city of Vienna has offered to donate a temporary bridge over the Danube.

Vienna, 27 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A spokesman for the Vienna city council said Wednesday the city plans to build a temporary bridge over the Danube River near the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad. The city is hoping the donation will pave the way for construction crews to remove the wreckage of three bombed bridges and restore navigation on the river.

Several countries, including Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Germany, have complained of trade losses running into billions of dollars because river ships with their convoys of barges cannot traverse the Danube.

Last year, Ukraine estimated its losses as high as $9 million a month. Bulgaria, with more of its trade dependent on river transport, says its losses are many times higher.

The Vienna spokesman said the city's offer to donate a temporary bridge was connected with a recent Austro-Hungarian plan to clear the three bombed bridges at an estimated cost of $24 million. Both countries are among those which have suffered most from the loss of trade.

The plan to clear the wrecked bridges was accepted this week by the 11 nations of the Danube Commission, which brings together countries that use the river. It will now be taken to the European Union, where foreign ministers are expected to vote on it next month.

Previous attempts to clear the wreckage from the Danube have run into trouble because of Yugoslavia's insistence that the wreckage could not be removed until the West agreed to pay to rebuild all three bridges.

This has been unacceptable to the European Union because its sanctions policy forbids investment in Serbia. Belgrade has now agreed to allow the European Union access to clear the wreckage, and Austria and Hungary believe their plan offers a way around the EU sanctions policy.

The plan envisages the EU announcing a tender to clear the Danube. The tender will exclude Yugoslav companies, but will give preference to companies from countries along the river. The EU has not offered to fund the building of a bridge.

On German radio Wednesday, a member of the city council of Novi Sad was quoted as saying a new bridge is a "desperate necessity" for the city. He said that since the bombing raids last year, the town's 260,000 people have had trouble getting to hospitals and schools. He also said the delivery of food had been hindered in some cases.

The Danube is a major transportation link for most of its 3,000 kilometers route from southern Germany to the Black Sea. For about 400 kilometers, it flows through Yugoslavia. Those 400 kilometers are vital to trade between Eastern and Western Europe. Any disturbance that cuts traffic through the Yugoslav section has an immediate effect on trade figures.

At one stage last year, 62 river convoys were held up in the Hungarian port of Mohacs. Most were carrying goods for Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine.

On the other side of the Yugoslav stretch of river, Romanian freighters were unable to proceed with goods bound for Austria. Most of the goods were delivered by expensive road transport.

In Germany, a river trade company in Regensburg said companies operating more than 150 river freighters had switched to road traffic to get their goods to Romania and Bulgaria. Spokesmen for the companies involved say the use of road transport has caused large financial losses.