By Sabine Siebold
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's interior minister called on Friday for the suspension of visa-free travel for Serbs and Macedonians to the European Union following a surge in asylum applications from citizens of the two Balkan countries.
Serbs and Macedonians accounted for nearly a third of all applications for political asylum in Germany last month, official data showed, though both former Yugoslav republics are candidates to join the European Union and are thus required to uphold its values and freedoms.
Illegal immigration and asylum are likely to prove sensitive issues for German politicians in the countdown to federal elections next autumn.
"The increasing abuse of the asylum system is not acceptable ... The huge inflow of Serbian and Macedonian citizens must be stopped immediately," Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said in a statement.
The top-selling Bild daily quoted Friedrich as saying: "Visa-free travel must not lead to abuse of the asylum rules. This will strain the readiness of Germans to help the truly needy and persecuted."
The number of Serb asylum applicants in Germany rose threefold in September from the previous month while Macedonian requests jumped 70 percent, the data showed.
Visitors from Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro won the right to visa-free travel in the European Union's border-free Schengen zone in 2009. Citizens of Bosnia and Albania followed suit in 2010.
Late last year the European Union agreed new rules to make it easier to restore visa requirements, to counter fears of a sudden influx of migrants from the western Balkans.
But the bloc's Council of Ministers and the European Parliament have still to approve those rules, which envisage a temporary suspension of visa-free arrangements for countries whose citizens are deemed to be abusing the system.
"It may take up to six more months to get a final agreement," an EU official in Brussels told Reuters.
This week, a lawmaker from Germany's main opposition Social Democrats, Michael Hartmann, urged the authorities to reject bogus asylum applications more swiftly and to focus resources on genuine cases from countries such as Syria and Afghanistan.
Germany receives about 144,000 requests for political asylum per year, down from a peak of 500,000 in 1996, Hartmann said. Germany took in large numbers of refugees from the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
(Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Pravin Char)