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EU grants visa-free travel rights to Albania, Bosnia

(BRUSSELS) - The European Union agreed Monday to extend visa-free travel rights to Albania and Bosnia but with a tight monitoring system and the threat of suspending the privilege in case of abuses.

EU interior ministers unanimously gave the green light to let Albanians and Bosnians with biometric passports travel to 25 European nations without a visa for up to three months, said Belgian Immigration Minister Melchior Wathelet.

The visa waiver is expected to come into force by mid-December, he said.

The EU introduced a monitoring mechanism to prevent an influx of unfounded requests for asylum, a problem encountered by several countries since the former Yugoslav republics of Serbia and Macedonia won visa-free travel rights.

The European Commission will ensure that Albania and Bosnia make progress on key reforms, including strengthening the rule of law, combating organised crime and improving border controls, the EU said in a statement.

EU states will be able to hold "emergency" consultations in order to react to "any specific difficulties which might arise with flows of persons from the countries of the Western Balkans," the EU said.

"Visa liberalisation must be used for what it is intended -- to ease travel. But it does not give the right to work or ask for asylum in an EU country," Wathelet, whose country holds the EU rotating presidency, told a news briefing.

"If there are abuses, this can lead to the suspension of the (visa-free travel) mechanism," he said, adding that the EU wanted to avoid a "repeat" of the problems that emerged after visa-free rights were granted to Serbia and Macedonia in December 2009.

Albania and Bosnia, countries that aspire to join the EU one day, vowed to cooperate with the Union to avoid any abuses, Wathelet said.

Germany, France and the Netherlands pushed for conditions after a wave of citizens from Balkan countries with visa-free travel rights requested asylum after arriving in EU countries.

Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha sought to reassure Brussels that the waiver of visa rules would not lead to an "exodus." He said the EU's decision was the "biggest dream" come true for his country since the fall of communism.

The international community's high representative in Bosnia, Valentin Inzko, said the visa liberalisation brought Bosnians "closer to the European homeland to which they belong."

The news was greeted with delight in the streets of Tirana and Sarajevo.

"No more waiting in line for the embassy, no more sacrifices. Finally I can go to Italy to see my children and the grandchildren I have not seen since they were born," retired teacher Vera Hila said in the Albanian capital.

European home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem said it was an "historic day" for Albania and Bosnia.

But she warned that a visa-free regime "comes with responsibilities for both the governments and the people of the countries benefiting from this freedom."

Malmstroem stressed that the influx of "unfounded asylum requests" from the western Balkans has been a "major concern" for EU states, prompting the creation of a monitoring process to prevent the abuse of asylum procedures.

She said it was of the "utmost importance" that Albania and Bosnia intensify information campaigns for their citizens on the meaning of short-term, visa-free travel.

Visa liberalisation for Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina

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