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Italians called to invest more

PODGORICA, Mar 17 – Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi called for more investments by his country\’s business leaders in the tiny Adriatic state of Montenegro.

During a brief visit to Podgorica, Berlusconi told reporters that he favoured "more intensive economic cooperation and stronger presence of Italian investors in Montenegro".

"Italy is among the first 10 investors in Montenegro, but our goal is to be among the first five," Berlusconi told reporters after meeting his counterpart Milo Djukanovic.

Djukanovic said Italy was "interested in the energy and tourism sectors, as well as transport and the privatization of the port of Bar," the largest in Montenegro which has for years been connected by ferry to the Italian port of Bari.

Montenegro\’s economy has flourished largely thanks to foreign investment since it declared its independence from a loose federation with Serbia in mid-2006.

But the economic growth is predicted to slow to around two percent in the next two years compared with double-digit rates since independence due to the global economic crisis.

The Montenegrin opposition criticised Berlusconi\’s visit on Monday, saying it was "interfering in the electoral campaign" for legislative polls due to be held on March 29.

Opposition leader Nebojsa Medojevic said Berlusconi declined his request for a meeting, with the Italian embassy in Podgorica replying that he would have talks "only with representatives of official institutions".

But Medojevic told reporters that Berlusconi\’s visit came at a "very sensitive time, amid an electoral campaign and everything should be done to avoid a possible political manipulation".

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Djukanovic\’s Democratic Party of Socialists is being seen as leading in the polls, according to recent opinion polls.

Montenegro formally applied for European Union membership in December.

It signed a so-called Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the 27-nation bloc in October 2007, the first stage in a country\’s quest for membership.

In 2006, Montenegro joined NATO\’s Partnership for Peace programme, seen as the first step towards full membership in the military alliance.

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