BRUSSELS, Jan 11 (Reuters) - EU animal health experts have tightened rules for the import of live captive birds as part of the bloc's strategy to fight bird flu, the EU's executive Commission said in a statement on Thursday.
"Under the regulation agreed today, only specific countries or regions which have already been approved to export live commercial poultry will be allowed to export captive birds to the EU," it said.
The list of countries approved to export live captive birds to the EU would be limited to those already approved to export live poultry to EU markets, it said. These were Australia, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Israel, New Zealand and the United States, along with certain states in Brazil.
However, certain third countries that were geographically close to the European Union would be exempt from the new rules, it added -- Andorra, Lichtenstein, Monaco, Norway, San Marino, Switzerland and Vatican City.
"I am very glad that member states could agree to these tighter rules for captive bird imports," EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection Markos Kyprianou said.
"The devastation that the H5N1 avian influenza virus has caused globally serves as a reminder that we can take no chances in this area," he said.
The H5N1 strain mostly affects birds, but it has infected 263 people in 10 countries since 2003, killing 157 of them.
Scientists fear the virus could mutate and spread rapidly between people, triggering a pandemic that could sweep the globe in weeks and possibly kill millions.
The EU's new rules will not apply to certain types of birds, including commercial poultry and pet birds accompanying their owners, since these were already covered by separate EU laws.
Exporter countries will have to prove the absence of bird flu as well as the highly contagious virus Newcastle disease.
Birds destined for EU countries may not be vaccinated against avian flu and all imported birds will have to be individually identifiable through a leg-ring or microchip.