Westerwelle encourages Croatia's EU hopes on Balkan tour Eds: Westerwelle's trip ends Friday

Westerwelle encourages Croatia's EU hopes on Balkan tour Eds: Westerwelle's trip ends Friday

Croatia is on the final stretch of the road to European Union membership, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told President Ivo Josipovic Wednesday in Zagreb at the start of a mini-tour of the Western Balkans, DPA Reports.

   According to sources close to Westerwelle, the German foreign minister raised the prospect of finalizing accession talks in 2011.

   Westerwelle's trip to Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo is his first overseas trip since the summer recess and comes after calls from his own Free Liberal Party (FDP) to concentrate on diplomacy rather than internal politics.

   Of the seven nations that emerged from the ruins of former Yugoslavia, only Slovenia has joined the EU, in 2004.

   Strongly supported by Germany when it split from Yugoslavia in 1991, Croatia is the next in line for membership after five years of negotiations and reforms.

   In an address to be given at the Croatian Academy of Sciences, Westerwelle was to call on Croatia to "gather forces" for the final steps towards EU membership, according to an advance copy of the speech.

"(Then) accession negotiations can be concluded quickly, perhaps already next year," Westerwelle was to say.

   The remaining reform requirements that Croatia must meet "are not obstacles, but guarantees of freedom, security and prosperity."

   In Serbia, where he was due on Thursday, Westerwelle was expected to discuss Belgrade's fight against the secession of Kosovo, its former province, which has a majority Albanian population.

Many major Western countries have recognized Kosovo, but the EU remains divided over its status.

   In Bosnia, the likely item on his agenda is the strife between Muslims, Serbs and Croats that has blocked the country's political, economic and diplomatic progress.

   In Kosovo, besides meeting local leaders, Westerwelle is scheduled to visit some 1,400 German troops serving with KFOR, the NATO-led peacekeeping mission deployed there in 1999.

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