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Athens News Agency: News in English, 06-01-27
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From: The Athens News Agency at <http://www.ana.gr/>
 SEECP transport ministers sign rail cooperation memorandumTransport ministers of the SE Europe Cooperation Process (SEECP) signed a landmark memorandum of cooperation for the establishment of a new high-specifications rail network linking the major hubs of SE Europe, during a meeting in Athens on Thursday chaired by current SEECP chairman Greece's transport and communications minister Michalis Liapis.
SE Europe may be situated in the periphery of the European Union, but it should not find itself in the periphery of development, Liapis told the meeting, adding that the goal of the current Greek presidency of the group (for the period 2005-2006) was to boost the competitiveness of the region's rail transports, which in turn would attract more passengers and cargoes.
He welcomed the agreement as a "bold venture for upgrading the transport infrastructures in SE Europe, the promotion of the railway as an environment-friendly means of transport, the promotion of tourism, and also the sustainable economic development of the region, as well as rendering Greece a protagnist in developments in the region.
The in-principle agreement, which was signed by the transportation ministers of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, FYROM, Greece, Moldova, Romania, Serbia-Montenegro and Turkey, ushers in a new era in rail communication among the countries of the region, with the goal being to boost the competitiveness of rail transports in SE Europe, improve the quality of services offered, and substantially reduce travel time along the strategic sections of the region's rail network.
The first stage of the ambitiou scheme, which covers a network of 14 rail axes, is slated for completion in 2013, while the second stage is envisaged to be completed in 2020.
According to the memorandum, "mild" interventions will be made in the first stage aimed at increasing the speed of passenger trains to 130 kilometers per hour, with the prospect of speed reaching 160 and even 220 kilometers per hour along certain stretches of the network, while the speeds of the cargo trains will also be accordingly adjusted.
The memorandum further foresees the limitation or elimination of obstaces at cross-border crossings, and the simplification procedures, coordination of the timetable of the projects currently underway or being planned at bilateral and multilateral level, and seeking new funding vehicles (EU, international financial institutions), etc.
Greece was selected during the conference to chair the Steering Committee that will promote the implementation of the agreement, and also the Technical Secretariat that will undertake the technical support of the project.
Addressing the meeting earlier, Liapis and deputy foreign minister Evripides Stylianidis said that SE Europe was situated in the periphery of the EU, but it must not find itself in the "periphery of development".
The goal of the Greek presidency (of the SEECP) was to boost the competitiveness of rail transports in SE Europe, which would attract more passengers and goods, Liapis said.
To achieve that goal, it is necessary to increase the speed of rain transports (from 60 kilometers per hour today to 160 kilomters per hour in the intermediate term), reduce delays, particularly at the cross-border crossings, and upgrade the quality of services provided to passengers, Liapis said, adding that all these elements were contained in the memorandum that would be signed at the end of the conference.
Regarding the financing of the networks, the memorandum provided for investigating the prospects of national and international, public and private resources.
Addressing the conference in turn, Stylianidis said that the modernisation of the region's road and rail axes was expected to contribute substantially to improving the economies of SE Europe, and he cited recent activities aiming at opening up new corss-border axes and crossings with neighbouring countries and the materialisation of major road projects of European-wide interest.
He noted the recent inauguration of the Greek-Bulgarian Friendship Tunnel, and the plans for two additional border crossings with Bulgaria, progress in works on the new Komotini-Nymfaia-GrecoBulgarian border highway, and the plans for a new highway linking Xanthi with Bulgaria.
Greek prime minister Karolos Papoulias and his Bulgarian counterpart Georgi Purvanov in early December inaugurated a tunnel constructed to facilitate the opening of the new border crossing between the two countries at Exochi, in Drama. The new Ilinden-Exochi border crossing links Drama with the neigbouring Bulgarian city of Goce Delcev. The initial agreement for the opening of the new border crossing was signed in 1995. It is the first of three new border checkpoints between Greece and Bulgaria provided for in the bilateral agreement, aimed at alleviating congestion at the other busy border posts between the two countries. The other two future border crossings will connect Komotini with Kurdzhali, and Xanthi with Rudozem.
He also said that upgrading was being dvanced of the Trans-European Corridor 4 (Thessaloniki-Sofia).
Regarding Turkey, Stylianidis said that at the latest meeting of the joint interministerial economic cooperation committee, it had been decided to proceed with the establishment of a second bridge in the Kipi-Ipsala region, with Greek funding, aimed at decongesting the existing crossing, while a new coastal link was being examined in the northern part of the Aegean.
On the Trans-European Corridors, he said the Greek government's priority was the upgrading of Corridor 10 into a high-specifications highway, which would ensure the speedy and safe link of Thessaloniki, Skopje and Belgrade, and from there to the European markets. The project, he added, would be funded by Greek resources and by international financial institutions (i.e. the European Investment Bank).
Stylianidis noted that Greek premier Costas Karamanlis was running a strong "economic diplomacy" campaign, adding that during his recent visits to the US, China and Japan, the Greek effort had focussed on the Balkan region, with the aim of encouraging investments in the region and assisting the development of entrepreneurship through the projection of Greece as a part of the whole called SE Europe.
"Our proposal is the establishment of headquarters of international business groups in Greece, with production units in the Balkans, thus encouraging cooperation among our countries and growth," Stylianidis concluded.
 U.S. welcomes Turkish proposal on Cyprus issueWASHINGTON (ANA-MPA/T.Ellis) - The United States on Thursday welcomed Turkey's recent proposal on Cyprus, according to a written statement by State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack.
"The United States welcomes Turkey‚s proposal on Cyprus as an expression of Turkey's willingness to advance a negotiated settlement of the Cyprus issue. The proposal is also consistent with the Secretary General's 2004 recommendations that the international community set the stage for future reunification through easing the isolation of Turkish Cypriots," McCormack said.
"Progress toward a Cyprus settlement will require creative thinking and constructive dialogue. We welcome all proposals that seek to break the current deadlock, and hope that all parties will engage and remain flexible and creative. We encourage the Secretary General and the parties to take these ideas seriously in order to move the Cyprus settlement process forward.
"The United States stands ready to assist the United Nations in this effort," the spokesman concluded.
 Papandreou meets Straw, rejects Turkey's Cyprus proposalGreece's main opposition PASOK leader George Papandreou on Friday briefed visiting British foreign secretary Jack Straw on his party's negative position on the recent Turkish proposal on the Cyprus issue, while he also expressed disagreement with visits such as that by Straw in Cyprus. He was referring to Straw's meeting with Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat at the so-called 'presidential mansion' in the Turkish-occupied section of the Cypriot capital, Nicosia, which the Cyprus government has strongly objected.
Straw arrived in Athens on Thursday afternoon on the final leg of a brief visit to new EU member Cyprus, Turkey and Greece.
In statements to the press after the 45-minute meeting, Papandreou stressed that Turkey must fulfill its obligations to the European Union and to the EU member states without exception or divergence.
"This is the main reason for the rejection of the Turkish initiative, given that we cannot accept that exchanges be given to Turkey in return for (fulfillment of) its obligations, and especially when the exchanges concern, in essence, recognition of the (self-styled Turkish Cypriot pseudo-state, which is recognised only by Ankara, in the) occupied sector," Papandreou explained.
The Turkish proposals, unveiled earlier this week by Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gul, have been rejected by the Greek and Cyprus governments as a rehashing of inconclusive proposals that had been tabled in May.
Papandreou further stressed that there must be great caution in visitis made to Cyprus, particularly to the Turkish-occupied sector, so as to avoid polarisation. He said the way in which Straw's visit had been organised "did not help" in a climate of cooperatin and understanding between the two sides on Cyprus.
Papandreou cast blame on prime minister Costas Karamanlis personally, for the fact that "we have reached the position where Greece is on the defence and Turkey has the initiative". This, he continued, resulted from "the government having missed two huge opportunities", while "its policy is characterised by timidity and lack of initiatives".
Questioned on the outcome of the Palestinian elections, which he also discussed with Straw, Papandreou said he does not consider it a negative development.
"The international community must acknowlege, first of all, that the elections were democratic ones," the PASOK leader said, adding that "Hamas must be given the opportunity to show its true intentions on the peace process, democratic operation, and the non use of violence".
He opined that if the international community moved in that direction, "perhaps there will be positive developments".
Also attending the Papandreou-Straw meeting were PASOK officer for foeign affairs and defence Christos Papoutsis, the corresponding coordinator of the party's parliamentary group Michalis Chryssohoidis, the head of Papandreou's diplomatic office Dimitris Droutsas, and Papandreou's press spokesman Nikos Ziogas.
 Straw comments on Hamas victoryThe United Kingdom respects the results of any democratic and fair electoral process, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said in Athens on Thursday.
Asked by reporters on the stance which the British government intends to maintain towards the new Palestinian government, following the victory of Hamas, the British foreign secretary said, following his meeting with his Greek counterpart Petros Molyviatis, that "we respect the results of any democratic and fair electoral process."
Straw added:"And those however who participate in such a process must abide with the principle that democracy is not compatible with the use of violence. If someone is a candidate, he promises to his potential voters that he will renounce violence and follow the road of democracy. Hamas is at a cross-road, between the road of democracy and the peaceful solution of differences and to that of violence."
"Britain and the international community as well, will formulate their position towards Hamas according to the stance Hamas will take," Straw added.
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