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Albania clears 1st hurdle to EU membership

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TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania cleared the first hurdle on its long path to European Union membership Tuesday, with the EU granting candidate status on the country's fourth try. Albania has failed to win the coveted status three times since 2009.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said in a Twitter post the decision represented an "acknowledgement of reform efforts" by Albania.

The decision is the first major hurdle to become a member of the EU, a bloc of half a billion people that forms the world's biggest economy. It was agreed on by the 28-nation bloc's foreign ministers at their meeting in Luxembourg and is subject to endorsement by the European Council on Friday.

However, candidate status doesn't automatically lead to membership. For that, Albania will have to meet many requirements in tackling crime and corruption, and bringing its judiciary and administration to European standards, which could take years.

"For Albania, today's decision should translate into a strengthened endorsement of its reform agenda," the European Commission, the EU executive, said in a statement.

As part of efforts to show it takes its commitments seriously, Albanian police last week took control of the lawless southern village of Lazarat, a main source of marijuana production, after a four-day gunbattle in which 800 police came under fire from rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and mortars.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who came to power in June 2013, has pledged to push for EU membership.

After speaking by phone with Fule, Rama said in a Twitter post he was "proud that we all together did it. Thanks and gratitude to all of you."

Speaking in a televised news conference later Tuesday, Rama said the membership negotiations will be "more intensive, the road is more difficult and the challenge becomes bigger."

"We are convinced that we shall do it despite the conditionalities set on us because those we have set on ourselves are much stronger," Rama said.

He also praised the opposition, saying that gaining candidate status was not "an exclusive achievement of the government."

"It takes two to tango," Rama said, mindful of the EU's statement that stressed the importance of "continued and sustainable dialogue between the government and the opposition on EU-related reforms."

Main opposition Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha said Tuesday's decision was the "end of a long road that started five years ago."

"An important step comes to an end but a new one, the launch of (membership) negotiations, is ahead," he said. "Now the bar is higher because more is expected from all of us."

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Juergen Baetz contributed to this report from Brussels.

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