EU extends border-free zone to 9 new EU states

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BRUSSELS, Nov 8 (Reuters) European Union interior ministers agreed today to extend the bloc's border-free zone to nine additional member countries on December 21.

From that date, people from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia will be able to travel to and from the existing 15 members of the so-called Schengen area without having to show a passport.

''The council (of EU ministers) agreed that the conditions for lifting the internal borders with nine new member states are met,'' an EU official said.

''It's a very key step for the people. They will really feel after the enlargement of Schengen that they are part of the EU because they can travel freely without controls at the borders, and that is one of the basic ideas of the EU,'' Slovenia's interior minister, Dragutin Mate, told Reuters in an interview.

Checks will continue at airports for intra-Schengen flights until the end of March.

Thirteen EU countries, plus Norway and Iceland, are currently part of the Schengen area whose members dismantle internal border posts.

Schengen countries apply common external border controls, a common visa policy and share a police database on criminals and lost cars.

Britain and Ireland have chosen not to join.

The nine countries that will join ''Schengen-land'' next month all became members of the now 27-nation EU in 2004. Cyprus, which joined at the same time, has asked for one year's delay.

Romania and Bulgaria, which joined the EU only this year, need more work to meet security criteria, officials say.

Ministers will confirm Thursday's decision in early December after consulting the European Parliament, EU diplomats said.

REUTERS NY SK KP2058

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