Balkan ministers agree to boost ties with EU

The region - relatively impoverished compared to EU countries and known for its long history of savage wars - will also establish a liaison office in Brussels to promote Balkan countries' efforts to join the EU.

Bakoyannis said Balkan foreign ministers meeting in the northern port of Thessaloniki also said they would expand the Central European Free Trade Agreement, or CEFTA, to include all Balkan states. Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and Macedonia are already members.

At a meeting in Bucharest last month, Balkan prime ministers and the chief U.N. administrator for Kosovo signed a declaration vowing to include all Western Balkan countries in the trade pact by the end of the year.

The SEECP members are Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia-Montenegro and Turkey. Moldova, which formerly had observer status, was accepted Wednesday as a full member. Greece - the only EU member in the group - is set to hand over the one-year presidency of the group to Croatia after the summit.

Japan, a major contributor to Balkan reconstruction projects, has guest status at the meeting, represented by Deputy Foreign Minister Akiko Yamanaka.

Foreign ministers also discussed improving infrastructure, and transport ministers are to sign an agreement on improving rail services and shortening journey times across the region.

The meeting was being held under tight security, including anti-aircraft missile batteries and up to 1,500 police officers stationed throughout the city, police said.

A number of bilateral meetings are expected during the summit, including between the prime minister of Greece and Turkey.

Relations between the two NATO allies have improved considerably in recent years, after Greece and Turkey came close to war in 1996 over a disputed islet in the Aegean Sea, the AP reports.

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