TIRANA (AP) – Albania yesterday signed a 418-million-euro ($531 million) contract with a US-Turkish joint venture to build a four-lane stretch of highway that will shorten the route to neighboring Kosovo, in the biggest ever infrastructure project in the tiny Balkan country. Bechtel International Inc, based in San Francisco, and Enka, based in Istanbul, will build the 57-kilometer (35.4-mile) road segment, including a 6-kilometer (nearly 4-mile) tunnel, starting this month until June 2009. The funding will come from the Albanian government and other international institutions and banks, according to Transport Ministry officials. They did not give details on the names of the companies or on loan terms. Kosovo, a UN-run province in Serbia, is important to Albania because most of the tourists visiting the western Balkan country are ethnic Albanians from Kosovo or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as well as expatriate Albanians returning from other parts of Europe. The portion of the highway being built by Bechtel is part of a 170-kilometer (105-mile) highway to Kosovo. The completed highway will run from the port city of Durres – 35 kilometers (20 miles) west of the capital Tirana – to the town of Kukes, 200 kilometers (125 miles) northeast of Tirana, and then to the Morina border crossing point. Prime Minister Sali Berisha, whose government made the highway a priority, said it would serve to link Albania with Kosovo, Serbia and Central Europe, and that region with Western Europe through the port of Durres. He added that the road would also help fight poverty in Albania’s poorest northeastern area which it crosses. Albania, one of Europe’s poorest countries, has hopes of one day joining the European Union and NATO. The new road will be about 45 kilometers (nearly 30 miles) shorter than existing roads and will shorten the travel time – which can now take up to six hours – to two hours. The current road, which has only two lanes, is full of potholes and winding turns, making it virtually impossible to drive at average speeds above 40 kph (25 mph).