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EU Commission warns Romania over illegal logging

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Bucharest (AFP)

The European Commission on Wednesday put Romania on notice over its illegal logging, launching a sanctions procedure that could see Bucharest brought in front of a court and penalised.

Romania was given one month to take measures to prevent timber companies from selling illegally chopped wood on the EU market.

"Inconsistencies in the national legislation do not allow Romanian authorities to check large amounts of illegally harvested timber," the commission said in a so-called letter of formal notice, the first step in the EU's infringement procedure.

Forests cover some seven million hectares (17.3 million acres), or almost a third of Romania.

The EU member's timber sector, dominated by the Austrian company Holzindustrie Schweighofer, is estimated to be worth more than six billion euros ($6.6 billion).

A forest inventory commissioned by the government and leaked to the media last year showed that 20 million cubic metres of wood disappear illegally yearly from the forests, while 19 million cubic metre are cut legally.

According to the European Commission, Romanian authorities also "manage forests, including by authorising logging, without evaluating beforehand the impacts on protected habitats" as required under EU rules.

Romanian Environment Minister Costel Alexe blamed his predecessors for the situation.

"The first letter from the commission came three years ago... Previous governments endlessly postponed solutions that could have stopped illegal logging," Alexe told reporters, pledging to act swiftly.

Last year, two rangers were killed in separate incidents while trying to stop timber thieves, leading to thousands of Romanians to protest to demand authorities do more to protect the country's forests and rangers.

Gabriel Paun of the NGO Agent Green said Wednesday that illegal logging affected both state and privately owned forests, including those home to bears, wolves, lynx and "many wonderful wild creatures".

"The situation is completely out of control," he said.

Under the infringement procedure, an EU member state can be taken to the Court of Justice and, as a last resort, be hit with financial sanctions.

Most cases however are solved before going to court, according to the European Commission.

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