Serbia starts to clean up garbage-filled lake

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PRIBOJ, Serbia (Reuters) - Two barges sailed up and down a vast stretch of floating trash on the Potpecko artificial lake in Serbia on Friday, collecting tons of garbage that almost clogged the dam that crosses it.

The river Lim which fills the lake is swollen by melting snows and, according to activists, it has carried in more than 20,000 cubic meters of plastics from unregulated dumps along its banks in Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia.

As the garbage also threatened the functioning of a hydroelectric plant, authorities in Belgrade ordered an immediate clean-up.

The operators collect up to 100 cubic meters of plastic and other trash daily and take it to a landfill about 80 km (50 miles) away.

"This problem is years old and it is difficult to say who is responsible, ... from its source, the Lim river ... flows through three states," Dragan Ljeljen, a official from the nearby town of Priboj, told Reuters.

To counter the problem, Serbia's Environment Minister, Irena Vujovic, and officials from Montenegro and Bosnia agreed on Monday to coordinate efforts to prevent further pollution.

In Priboj, environmental activist Slavisa Lakovic said the persistent pollution is harming wildlife and fish in the lake.

"Piling up trash affects the quality of water and reduces the quantity of oxygen in it ... animals are coming to the banks to rummage through trash," he told Reuters.

Countries in the Western Balkans are still recovering from the wars and economic turmoil of the 1990s. They have done little to tackle environmental issues, in part due to lack of funds.

Serbia, a European Union membership candidate, needs to spend billion of euros to clear up pollution before it joins the bloc, authorities in Brussels and Belgrade say.

(Reporting by Branko Filipovic, Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade, Daria Sito Sucic in Sarajevo; Editing by Giles Elgood)