Neighbors pledge cooperation

ANKARA (AFP) – Twelve countries from the oil-rich Black Sea region pledged to boost trade and economic cooperation at a one-day meeting here yesterday, but the political conflicts that separate them remained visible. The meeting of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) countries took place in a tense atmosphere with host Turkey, the current head of the group, threatening military action against Kurdish rebel bases in northern Iraq. Turkish President Abdullah Gul warned in an opening speech that Ankara is determined to «take all necessary steps» to combat the Kurdish rebel threat and a US representative reasserted Washington’s support for Ankara. Serbia backed Turkey’s crackdown on the separatist Kurdish insurgency and immediately drew a parallel with Kosovo, warning that the independence of its ethnic Albanian province would set «a dangerous precedent» for other countries with separatist-minded communities. «Serbia supports Turkey’s policies to restore stability along its southern border,» Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told the gathering. «Recognizing the independence of Kosovo will mean recognizing the legitimacy of one day partitioning any country against its will,» he said. Albania’s Deputy Foreign Minister Edith Harxhi hit back, asserting »the right of Kosovo to enter a process of statehood.» Despite lingering political and territorial conflicts between members, the 12 BSEC nations have strived to develop closer economic ties since the organization was established in 1992. «The spirit of cooperation here is encouraging,» Gul said. The foreign ministers of Greece, Georgia, Romania, Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine attended the gathering, while Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Moldova and Russia were represented by deputy foreign ministers. Participants conceded in a final declaration that «existing conflicts impede cooperation» and called for their «earliest peaceful settlement.» They pledged to enhance joint projects, notably in the fields of energy, trade and transport. The BSEC region is the world’s second-largest source of oil and natural gas after the Persian Gulf and a major transit corridor for Europe-bound energy supplies. A senior US official, who attended as an observer, asserted that Washington does not seek to limit Russian natural gas exports to Europe, but insisted that diversifying supplies is crucial. Russia is often accused of using its gas riches as a political weapon. «We want the ability of Russia to deliver gas reliably to Europe… to continue. But reliability also means diversity in supplies,» US Assistant Deputy Secretary of State Matthew Bryza said. «We strongly support anybody who seeks to diversify supply in gas,» he added. A major aim of the BSEC is to upgrade transport infrastructure to boost trade and tourism, including projects for a 7,500-kilometer highway around the Black Sea coast and regular maritime links between the ports of member states. Removing legal barriers to trade is another priority. Members are also working on an agreement to facilitate visa procedures for businesspeople and truckers transporting goods.