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Migrants Clash With Police in Hungary, as Others Enter Croatia

Hungarian police officers moved against hundreds of migrants on Wednesday, beating them with batons, dousing them with water cannons and spraying them with tear gas after they tried to surge through a border crossing that had been blocked for a second day.

The migrants tore down a razor-wire gate on the Serbian side of the border crossing, and were pushing through to a second gate on the Hungarian side when the riot police drove them back. Twenty people were injured, including two children who had been thrown across the fence into Hungary, and taken to a hospital, the authorities said.

But the migrants soon started fires and threw rocks toward the police officers, who then came at them with batons, beating their way through the crowd. The clash followed two days of frustration for the migrants, some of whom arrived here soon after Hungary imposed tough new laws on Tuesday to prevent their passage into the country, and enforced the laws with armed police officers at a reinforced border with Serbia.

It was the first major clash on the land route from Turkey since Aug. 21, when the Macedonian police used stun grenades to break up a group of migrants trying to cross the border into their country from Greece.

Already some of the migrants who had reached the crossing had given up and peeled off, heading for new routes through Croatia and other countries on their journey west, where they hope to apply for asylum in places like Germany and Sweden.

But about 2,000 remained behind, still hoping that Hungary would reconsider, as it had done once before, and let them pass to Austria, on buses or by train.

By late afternoon, the calm, almost-festive atmosphere at an informal encampment at the closed crossing point grew increasingly tense, and hundreds of migrants pressed the border.

"Open! Open! Open!" the migrants chanted. About 50 riot police officers formed a barrier. A vehicle armed with water cannons stood nearby. Military helicopters hovered overhead.

The police fired tear gas. Many of the migrants gagged and poured water over their eyes to stop the sting, but the action drove them back.

Throngs of young men then set trash and wood on fire. Others hurled blocks of charred wood and stones at the fence, and at the police officers guarding it.

The police appeared to pull back, and suddenly the gate opened. "It's open, it's open, bye bye Serbia," some of the migrants shouted. But as they started to push through, the police came at them, beating at them with their batons, as many were trampled in a rush back to the Serbian side.

The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, responded with outrage to news footage of the clash. "I was shocked to see how these refugees and migrants were treated," he said. "It's not acceptable."

Hungary's foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, blamed the clash on unruly migrants, who he said had thrown water bottles and set clothing on fire.

With the Hungarian border blocked, migrants sought out other routes to western Europe, showing their determination to leave behind war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

Countries like Croatia -- through which they could bypass Hungary -- were preparing for mass arrivals. Croatia's prime minister promised the asylum seekers safe movement, as long as they were only passing through the country. About 320 had entered Croatia by late afternoon, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

But humanitarian groups raised concerns that migrants seeking to get to Croatia could inadvertently cross through areas near the Hungarian-Croatian border that are littered with thousands of land mines left from the Balkan wars of the 1990s. On Wednesday, Croatian demining experts were sent to the area where many migrants were arriving, Reuters reported.

Hungary moved to close off another alternative, by tightening its border with Romania. That prompted an angry response from Victor Ponta, Romania's prime minister, who said that Hungary was violating the European Union's ideals of peace and unity. "Fences, dogs, police, weapons: This looks like the 1930s," he was quoted as saying by the Romanian news service Mediafax.

The ripple effects reached as far as Istanbul, were hundreds of migrants were huddled in informal camps after they were stopped from leaving Turkey or picked up on highways and brought back to the city. Still, some had made it to Edirne, on the European side of Turkey, where migrants thronged a bus station in the hope of getting clearance to walk to the border with Greece.

"We'll go to Greece, then Serbia, but skip Hungary and go through Slovenia, instead," said one Syrian migrant, Ghassen Tekriti, who arrived in Edirne on Tuesday.

At the border town of Horgos, Serbia, migrants, who had slept in tents overnight, lined up for food. There were just 11 toilets and two taps with running water for them. The temperature reached a sweltering 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mohamed Afar, 23, who said he had left Damascus, Syria, after his shop there was bombed, said he and 13 relatives had raced to get into Hungary, but had failed to make it before the border was closed. Now, he said, they were sheltering in an abandoned building once used by Serbian customs officials.

"I'm hoping the border will open," he said, adding that he was looking to Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany to resolve the crisis. "I will wait. Maybe Ms. Merkel comes to open it? The Hungarian government seems to have no mind or heart. Can't they see all these families? There is nothing for us here. It smells and it's dirty."

Mr. Afar said that he was desperate to take his two young children to Germany or to the Netherlands, but that he was quickly running out of money.

Hungary had moved swiftly to show that it would enforce its new laws. On Wednesday the government announced that police officers had detained 519 people for illegal entry or damaging a border fence since the new rules came into force a day earlier. The authorities have opened 46 criminal cases so far, and the first suspects were to appear in court Wednesday afternoon, according to Gyorgy Bakondi, an aide to Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Prosecutors in Szeged, Hungary, said that nine adults -- seven from Iraq, two from Syria -- would be deported for illegally crossing, after expedited court proceedings.

Hungary's actions had spillover effects throughout the region. Buses that had been carrying migrants to Serbia's border with Hungary from its border with Macedonia were instead diverted to Croatia, Serbian news media reported.

[Source: By Rick Lyman and Dan Bilefsky, The New York Times, Horgos, Serbia, 16Sep15]

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small logoThis document has been published on 17Sep15 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.