The Balkans, a hotbed of crime and violence during the Yugoslav wars and the chaotic transition from communism, has become one of the safest areas in Europe to live, according to a U.N. report released Thursday.

The report concluded that nine Balkan countries — including Bosnia and Croatia, which saw vicious ethnic bloodletting in the 1990s — now boast lower levels of homicide, robbery and rape than Western Europe.

"Surprising as it may be, the Balkan region is one of the safest in Europe," the report said.

"The Balkans is departing from an era when demagogues, secret police and thugs profited from sanctions-busting and the smuggling of people, arms, cigarettes and drugs."

The bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia under the late autocrat Slobodan Milosevic provoked the worst carnage in Europe since World War II, and left the entire region in turmoil throughout the 1990s.

The survey, entitled "Crime and Its Impact on the Balkans," covered nine countries: Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Moldova, Bulgaria, Romania, Montenegro and Serbia. It was compiled by Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Despite the progress, Costa warned that organized crime — and its links to politicians and business — continues to pose serious challenges in several Balkan nations, though that too is on the decline.

At a news conference in Brussels, Costa acknowledged that the findings defied the stereotypical view many Europeans still hold of the Balkans as a place of lawlessness.

"Some of you will be surprised," Costa told reporters, "by the key findings of this report."

But, he said, the level of conventional crimes "across the region are by far lower than they used to be, particularly at the beginning of the 1990s."

The report said the trend of reduced crime is likely to continue, "since the region lacks the usual vulnerabilities that lead to crime elsewhere in the world: mass poverty, income inequality, runaway urbanization and large-scale youth unemployment."

The smuggling of drugs, guns and humans through the region is on the decline, although the Balkans remains the main transit zone for heroin destined for Western Europe, with about 100 tons estimated to pass through the region each year, Costa said.

Albania has the worst crime in the region and remains the "soft underbelly" of the Balkans for Mafia rings, Costa said.

And still, the report said, "on average, Southeast Europeans are more likely to face demands for bribes than people in other regions of the world."

Costa urged countries of the region to strengthen the rule of law, and called on the international community, particularly the European Union, to provide the support needed to further reduce vulnerability to crime and instability in the region.

He said fighting crime in Kosovo remains a priority. Kosovo, which has been run by the U.N. since war ended there in 1999, declared independence from Serbia in February.