Sep 17, 2015 10:02 PM

Croatia puts army on alert as it reels from migrant influx

The Associated Press

BATINA, Croatia (AP) Croatian leaders put the army on alert after chaos erupted Thursday on the border with Serbia, where thousands of asylum-seekers poured into the country, some trampling each other in a rush to get on the few available buses and trains. Dozens were injured in the mayhem.

The masses descended on Croatia after Hungary erected a barbed wire-fence and took other tough measures to stop them from using it as a gateway into Western Europe.

As Hungarian officials hailed their success in putting a halt to the influx and moved ahead with plans to build more border fences, leaders in Croatia pleaded that their country was at full capacity and unable to cope with waves of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

Croatian Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic said he had a message for migrants: Don't try to go to Western Europe through his country.

"Don't come here anymore. Stay in refugee centers in Serbia and Macedonia and Greece," Ostojic told reporters. "This is not the road to Europe. Buses can't take you there. It's a lie."

Hungary sealed off its border with Serbia this week with a razor-wire fence and began arresting people who tried to cross. Police used tear gas, batons and water cannons on those who tried to push open a border gate on Wednesday.

Croatia represents a longer and more difficult route into Europe, but those fleeing violence in their homelands had little choice. By late Thursday a total of 9,200 people had entered the country in just 48 hours, police said, and other groups were trying to cross into neighboring Slovenia and Hungary.

Slovenia, like Hungary, appeared unwilling to take in the inflow, with Slovenian police saying those arriving from Croatia would simply be sent back there, according to the country's state news agency.

Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic called on the military to be on higher alert and to act if needed to protect the border from the migrants. Ostojic, the interior minister, meanwhile, suggested Croatia might close its borders if faced with thousands more newcomers.

After bus trips through Serbia, many migrants crossed fields on foot to enter Croatia, where dozens of police at first directed them to trains and buses heading to refugee centers. Authorities warned them to avoid walking in areas along the Serbian border, where there are still mines left over from Balkan wars.

Soon matters got out of control.

Hundreds of angry asylum seekers pushed through police lines in the eastern Croatian town of Tovarnik after waiting for hours in the hot sun, demanding to be allowed to move on toward Western Europe. An Associated Press photographer saw one man collapse on the ground and dozens injured.

More than 2,000 men, women and children had been stuck at the local train station for hours. When buses finally arrived, groups charged toward them, overwhelming Croatian police. The situation calmed down but some migrants moved off on foot, with police unable to stop them.

In Croatia's north, police in the town of Batina struggled to cope as hundreds of other asylum seekers came over a Danube River bridge after being bused there by Serbian authorities. Some families were separated as dozens of policemen tried to establish order.

As an EU member state, Croatia is required to register the asylum seekers. But almost all are trying to reach Germany or elsewhere in Western Europe, and want to move through quickly without a paper trail.

Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said his country could do little to prevent the migrants from moving on. "Our resources are limited," he said. "I will not, and cannot, stop those people and they will pass through Croatia."

Some opted for a detour, trying to cross from Croatia into Hungary along a stretch of open border that has no fence. That move did not prove very successful: Dozens were detained near the Hungarian village of Illocska, across from the Croatian town of Beli Manastir, Hungarian state media reproted.

By nightfall hundreds were approaching the border with Slovenia, one of several countries on the migration route calling for urgent action by the European Union to manage the crisis.

While many refugees quickly decided to switch routes and try their luck through Croatia, others found themselves stranded in Serbia.

"We've run out of money and we only know the way through Hungary," said Mohamed Jabar, from the Iraqi town of Diyala, who was traveling with a son in a wheelchair and other family members. "All the other ways are unknown to us. They say ... there is a way through Croatia but who will welcome me there?"

"Are there humanitarian organizations? I have no clue!"

Mohamed Bader, sold his father's shop in Aleppo, Syria, to raise $10,000 for the journey with other family members, including women and children. He said he is now quickly running out of money and was afraid of spending the little he has left for an uncertain end.

"If anyone cares about us, let them let us in. From the beginning they could have stopped us by blocking our way in Turkey or Greece," Bader said. "Instead of having us come all this way with great difficulty only to be told at the end of the road that's it, we can't enter, stay here. I don't know what to do."

Hungary has faced strong international condemnation for its handling of the migrant crisis. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called Hungary's use of water cannons, tear gas and baton-wielding riot police unacceptable.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto lashed out Thursday against the criticism.

"I find it bizarre and shocking that certain esteemed international figures have stood on the side of people who for hours were throwing stones and pieces of cement at the Hungarian police," Szijjarto said. "And I'd also like to make it very clear, no matter what criticism I receive, that we will never allow such aggressive people to enter Hungary. Not even for transit purposes."

Hungarian police said they detained 22 people, including one Syrian man suspected of terrorism.

The European Union's migration commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos, declared Thursday that walls and violence are no solution and urged Hungary to work with the 28-nation bloc to alleviate the continent's migration crisis.

"The majority of people arriving in Europe are Syrians," Avramopoulos said at a news conference in Budapest. "They are people in genuine need of our protection. There is no wall you would not climb, no sea you wouldn't cross if you are fleeing violence and terror. I believe we have a moral duty (to) offer them protection."

Hungary, in contrast, has been insisting that most are simply economic migrants seeking better jobs. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has also said that by keeping out Muslims, Hungary is defending "Europe's Christian culture."

His government celebrated its sealed border on Thursday as a success.

"The assertive, uncompromising defense of the border has visibly held back human trafficking and forces them to change direction," said Janos Lazar, Orban's chief of staff. "That was the aim of the entire action."


Gera reported from Budapest, Hungary. Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia; Pablo Gorondi and Alex Kuli in Budapest; and Mike Corder in Roszke, Hungary, contributed to this report.


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