Croatia re-opens its border with Serbia

Croatia lifts border restriction with Serbia after long discussion over refugee influx

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

Croatia lifted its blockade of the border with Serbia on Friday, as southeastern Europe's squabbling governments took steps to ease tensions that had been rising because of a surge of people seeking to cross their territories en route to Western Europe.

Croatia's move came only hours after Hungary's prime minister pledged to seek support from other nations in the region before shutting down its border with Croatia. The moves suggest that regional leaders have recognized that tit-for-tat moves were hampering efforts to control the chaos resulting from the influx of tens of thousands fleeing their homelands.

The main crossing with Serbia - where trucks have formed miles-long lines - is to be reopened. Still, six of the eight Croatian crossings with Serbia will remain closed.

An urgent Serbian government session was being held Friday evening to discuss the new development.

"I believe this is a great victory for all the citizens of Serbia," said Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic.

To protest Croatia's decision to close the border to cargo, Serbia has banned imports from Croatia. Croatia responded by banning all Serbian-registered vehicles from entering the country.

The chaos strained relations among most of the countries in the region, particularly Croatia and Serbia, old rivals who fought a war amid the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

For his part, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban promised to consult with others as Hungary moves to complete a razor wire fence along its Croatian border, a decision that would block the flow of migrants and insert more confusion into an already difficult situation. Some 60,000 asylum-seekers have entered Croatia since Hungary shut its border with Serbia on Sept. 15.

"It is not enough to tell the world through the press what we are doing and why," Orban told reporters in Vienna. "We have to go everywhere and gather support before closing [the border]."

Hungary also appeared to back down Friday on its plan to create a fence on its border with Slovenia, which like Hungary is part of the EU's Schengen zone of passport-free travel. After it installed spools of razor-wire near a border crossing with Slovenia, rousing complaints from Slovenian officials, Hungary insisted the measure was only temporary.

The shutdown of the Hungarian-Serbian border had set off a domino effect throughout southeastern Europe. Croatia first welcomed the migrants, thinking that they would travel through into Slovenia, then Austria and Germany. But Slovenia refused to let the people pass, leaving Croatia, one of the poorest of the European Union's 28 nations, responsible for the human wave. Croatia then began to simply bus the migrants to Hungary.

Orban, in Vienna for talks with Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, suggested Friday that the Austrian leader opposed the idea of opening up a transit corridor for migrants from the Hungarian-Croatian border toward Austria and Germany.

Faymann and other Austrian officials have been very critical of Hungary's border fences, saying they were damaging bilateral relations.

Austria "denied its friendship to Hungary in particularly difficult times and I came to restore the earlier condition," Orban said.

Faymann, in separate comments to reporters, described relations with Hungary as "correct" but also said there was "tension," the Austria Press Agency reported. He said the meeting "shows we have to talk to each other."

The Austrian leader said Hungary's measures to secure the EU's external border were lawful, but stressed the right to asylum and called on Orban to honor laws both guaranteeing freedom of movement in the Schengen zone and laws governing the right to asylum.

In Croatia, rain and colder temperatures on Friday added to the misery of many asylum-seekers, who huddled under blankets and waited, hoping to go as soon as possible.

"I just want to go only to Germany," said Adnan Habbabi, 36, from Basra, Iraq, who hopes to meet up with family members there. "We hope to be rich there."