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On EU's eastern frontier, a high-tech effort to protect expanded borderless zone

From the air, thermovision cameras mounted on aluminum poles scrutinize the border between Slovakia and Ukraine.

On the ground, guards patrol in off-road vehicles and customs agents use scanners to sweep train compartments for illegal immigrants. There's a reason for all this unprecedented high-tech security: In just a few months, the 100-kilometer (60-mile) band of steep hills, woods, meadows and creeks will become the easternmost outpost of the European Union's borderless travel zone.

Nine of the 10 countries that became EU members in 2004 will join the so-called Schengen zone on December 31, completing the last step in their quest for one of the basic rights enshrined in EU treaties - freedom of movement without having to flash a passport. All nine countries are on course for abolishing controls on overland borders with other EU members by the end of the year, although there have been a few bumps.

Slovakia and Poland have had problems sticking to the tight deadlines for implementing the stringent new security measures, and Austria in particular has voiced concerns that security won't be watertight. Cyprus, which also joined the EU in 2004, has opted to keep some border checks in place. But the expansion of Schengen will have major symbolic significance for the EU newcomers. Despite being full-fledged members of the 27-nation bloc, until now they've been required to keep in place security checks at all their borders.

Officials in the nine mostly ex-communist countries liken the importance of joining the borderless zone to the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. Ironically, what's now being built on the EU's eastern frontier is a new, high-tech version of an iron curtain. There is no barbed-wire fence, but efforts to catch illegals trying to sneak into Europe from the east have accelerated in Slovakia and elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc.

Authorities say they're determined to disprove Western concerns that the EU's newcomers are incapable of protecting the bloc from potential terrorism and illegal immigration. “The surveillance of this border is crucial,” said Jan Bucek, Slovakia's deputy interior minister in charge of the country's preparations to join the borderless zone. “The EU fears that here's where all the immigrants and terrorists could get in,” Bucek said. “But we'll be ready to stop them. The Schengen zone takes its name from the village in Luxembourg where a landmark treaty allowing the abolition of border controls was signed in 1985.

Thirteen EU countries plus Iceland and Norway participate in the scheme, and Switzerland is set to join along with Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland and Czech Republic at the end of this year. Once in, the new countries will be connected with current participants by a computer data-sharing system that will let border officials and law enforcement authorities swap tips and information and quickly transfer fingerprint files.

EU officials have been reviewing the readiness of the candidate countries, a process which should be completed in September, said Friso Roscam Abbing, spokesman for EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattini. “We assess them country by country on the basis of strict criteria,” Abbing said, cautioning that it was still possible some countries might not make it in by the December 31 deadline.

Boosting security along the drab border between Slovakia and Ukraine is costing more than €35 million ($48 million), with Slovakia and the EU sharing the bill. At Sobrance, 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the frontier that once divided the Soviet Union from its satellite states, an ultramodern surveillance center has been equipped with computers and large plasma screens that will instantly display the slightest movement detected by the infrared cameras.

Officers working round-the-clock shifts will then coordinate a hunt for the trespassers, said Miroslav Uchnar, the director of Slovakia's border police in Sobrance. The number of guards policing the Ukrainian border has almost doubled from 293 in 2004, and will reach 747 next year, Uchnar said. If necessary, officers on snowmobiles, motorcycles or even horseback will be dispatched to tough-to-reach parts of the border where up to 2 meters (6 feet) of snow falls each winter, he said.

Others will patrol inland in an effort to capture any unauthorized people who manage to slip across the border, Uchnar added. The hiring of new border guards in Slovakia, Poland and Hungary - all of which border on non-Schengen countries - contrasts with a wave of dismissals and the reorganization and retraining of former guards in countries such as Germany or the Czech Republic, where they will no longer be needed.

Authorities say the tightened security is already a proven deterrent. In 2004, about 8,100 people were detained on the Ukrainian border trying to cross illegally into the EU. Last year, the number dropped to 4,100, say Slovak officials, who credit the new border security tools. “Now, they face a big risk of being captured,” Uchnar said. “We've forced them to look for other routes. (press release, pr-inside)