In a declaration signed on Wednesday, Bulgaria, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia-Montenegro, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic all promised to end the discrimination facing gypsies – the continent's poorest minority.

The joint statement issued after a one-day meeting in Sofia pledged to work "to abolish discrimination and heal the rift that separates the Roma from the rest of the population".

The meeting at Sofia was organized by the World Bank with the help of international financier and philanthropist George Soros.

After five heads of government and three deputy prime ministers signed the declaration, it was handed to a seven-year-old gypsy girl named Bojidara, who plans to keep a diary of the main events in her life until 2015 to gauge whether the promises have been kept.

Bold initiative

The meeting, called The Decade of Roma Inclusion was the first cooperative international effort to change the lives of the Roma, many of whom live in devastating poverty in the heart of Europe.

The Roma minorities in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Serbia-Montenegro are four to 10 times poorer than the rest of the population, according to World Bank figures.

World Bank director James Wolfensohn said gypsies faced bias and discrimination besides crippling poverty.

Soros said the meeting in Sofia marked "the first time that the governments are showing real political will to see that Roma are equal citizens in a growing Europe".

Pitiable plight

The Roma make up roughly 2% of the 450 million people who live in the 25-nation European bloc.

The UN Development Programme has painted a bleak picture of the conditions the gypsies endure. More than five times as many Roma as non-Roma live below the poverty line in Bulgaria and Serbia-Montenegro.

In Romania – which has the largest gypsy population in Europe – 70% do not have access to running water and 80%cannot afford essential prescription drugs.