Croatia PM urges Serbia to redirect migrants to ease burden

Zagreb (AFP) - Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic on Tuesday urged Serbia to resume directing migrants towards Hungary and Romania to help ease the burden on his own country.

Speaking to reporters, Milanovic said it was still possible for refugees to be directed to Croatia, but "my message to (Serbia) is ... also to send them to Hungary, Romania."

"We are not fools, we see what they (Serbia) are doing," he said, without explaining further.

Hungary sealed its border with Serbia on September 15 to stem the massive influx of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

Shortly aftwards, Serbia began directing incoming migrants towards Croatia, which like Hungary, is also a European Union (EU) member.

Zagreb initially promised free passage to the migrants, but quickly found itself swamped and began transporting them by bus and train to its border with Hungary.

Others continued travelling westwards towards neighbouring Slovenia.

Since Hungary closed its border with Serbia on September 15, nearly 35,000 people have entered Croatia, official figures showed on Tuesday.

Around 5,100 left Croatia on Monday, almost all of them crossing into Hungary, the interior ministry said.

Early on Monday, Croatia blocked trucks coming from Serbia at the only border crossing left open between the two countries in a move aimed at pressuring Belgrade to redirect travellers.

Croatia had on Thursday closed seven of its eight crossings with Serbia in a bid to slow the flow of people arriving.

At midday (1000 GMT) on Tuesday, the line of trucks waiting to enter Croatia at the Bajakovo-Batrovci crossing was more than 15 kilometres (nine miles) long.

- 'A clear message' -

"We have to send a clear message" to Serbia, Milanovic said of the move to halt truck traffic.

His Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic had threatened counter measures unless a solution was found by 1200 GMT on Tuesday, but he later agreed to extend the deadline to the end of Wednesday.

After an emergency meeting of his cabinet, Vucic spoke by telephone with Milanovic for 30 minutes and they agreed to continue talking.

"The government prepared a package of measures that Serbia would implement to defend its economic interest if the talks fail by tomorrow, (September) 23rd at midnight (2200 GMT)," he told reporters in Belgrade.

He refused to give details on what such measures would entail.

In the early afternoon, Croatia reopened the border for trucks carrying "perishable goods," both sides confirmed.

Meanwhile, scuffles broke out Tuesday between police and migrants trying to enter a refugee centre by force in eastern Croatia, state-run HRT television reported.

Some 2,000 migrants had arrived overnight in front of the centre after walking across the border with Serbia through a new path through the village of Bapska, near the town of Ilok, some 15 kilometres (nine miles) northeast of Opatovac, HRT reported.

After women and children were let in the tent settlement, men tried to force their way in through the main gate while police called on them to wait their turn, the network said, showing images of police pushing back the migrants. It said the situation later calmed down.

The refugee centre in the village of Opatovac, set up at the weekend, has the capacity for some 4,000 people.

The migrants stay there up to 48 hours, during which they are registered, given food and medical care and then taken by bus or train to border crossings with Hungary.

At emergency talks in Brussels on Tuesday, EU ministers pushed through a deal to relocate 120,000 refugees, overriding fierce opposition from states in eastern and central Europe.