Croatia lifts blockade with Serbia, easing tensions

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Posted: Sep 25, 2015 2:28 PM
Croatia lifts blockade with Serbia, easing tensions

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Southeastern Europe's squabbling leaders moved Friday to ease the border tensions that have escalated for more than a week since Hungary sought to slow the flood of asylum seekers through its territory.

Croatia reopened its main cargo crossing Friday with Serbia after heated exchanges between the two former Yugoslav states. The decision came hours after Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban pledged to consult with governments in the region before moving ahead with plans to build a fence along the Croatian border.

The concessions came shortly after a European Union summit on the migrant crisis, suggesting that the 28-nation bloc had become alarmed at the lack of cooperation between neighboring governments and the increasingly ugly tone of their exchanges. Just hours before Croatia announced its decision, a senior EU official appealed to authorities in Zagreb to change their minds.

"This crisis is of global dimension," Johannes Hahn, commissioner for regional policy, told reporters in Belgrade, the Serbian capital.

Hungary's closure of its border with Serbia on Sept. 15 triggered a domino effect that sent those fleeing their homelands scurrying from one European border to the next as they tried to reach Western Europe.

Croatia at first welcomed the migrants, thinking they would transit through to Slovenia, Austria and then Germany. But Slovenia refused to let the people pass, leaving Croatia, one of the EU's poorest nations, responsible for tens of thousands of people. The government in Zagreb then accused Serbia of shunting the refugees into its territory and closed the cargo crossing in retaliation.

Some 60,000 asylum seekers have entered Croatia since Hungary shut its border with Serbia on Sept. 15.

Orban on Friday sought to ease tensions, promising to consult with others before Hungary completes a razor-wire fence along its border with Croatia, a move that would insert more confusion into an already difficult situation in the Balkans.

"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 the closing of the (border) takes place."

The chaos also strained relations between Croatia and Serbia, old rivals who fought a war amid the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

After an emergency meeting Friday night, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic told Croatian state TV that Serbia will "absolutely" lift its embargo on Croatian goods.

Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said he lifted the blockade, but that he may reinstate it again if Serbia keeps on busing migrants to the Croatian border instead of sending at least some of them up north to the border with Hungary.

"There is no wall, no (razor) wire that can stop the people," Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic said while visiting the Opatovac transit center in Croatia.

Djorjde Vlajic, a commentator and acting editor-in-chief of Serbia's state Radio Belgrade 1, said the apparent softening of positions was the result of EU pressure. Key players in Brussels have decided that the smaller players must resolve their differences because the bloc as a whole must develop a unified response to the immense wave of refugees that is still on its way.

"This was a lesson for the voters," Vlajic said. "Europe will now clear up its yard and take care of the school kids."

Hungary's conciliatory gesture came after Orban traveled to Vienna for talks with Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann. Austrian officials have been critical of Hungary's quickly built border fences, saying they damaged 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, said there was "tensions" between the two countries but said relations were "correct," the Austria Press Agency reported. Friday's meeting "shows we have to talk to each other," he said.

The Austrian leader said Hungary's steps to secure the EU's external border were lawful, but he stressed that asylum is a human right. He called on Orban to honor laws guaranteeing freedom of movement in Europe's passport-free Schengen travel zone and those governing the right to asylum.

Orban got the message, toning down his often-nationalistic diatribes.

"It is clear that Orban is being more conciliatory and moderate instead of sticking to the 'Hungary does it alone' position," said Csaba Toth, director of the Republikon Institute think tank in Budapest. "He has gone in a more consensus-seeking direction in the last few days."

On the border in Croatia, rain and colder temperatures added to the misery of the migrants, who huddled under blankets and waited to leave as soon as possible.

"I just want to go only to Germany," said Adnan Habbabi, a 36-year-old from Basra, Iraq, who hopes to join family members there.

"Inshallah, we hope," he said. "We hope to be rich there."

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Associated Press Writers Danica Kirka in Zagreb and Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this story.