September 22, 2015 / 9:27 PM / 4 years ago

Road traffic halted between Serbia and Croatia in migrants row

BAJAKOVO, Croatia/BELGRADE (Reuters) - All road traffic between Serbia and Croatia was halted on Tuesday as relations between the ex-Yugoslav republics frayed over the flow of migrants across their border and stranded truck drivers blocked the last crossing that remained open between them.

Migrants wait to cross the border from Serbia near Tovarnik, Croatia September 22, 2015. REUTERS/Branko Filipovic/Stringer

Angry over the pace of the migrant influx over its eastern border from Serbia, Croatia early on Monday barred all cargo traffic from Serbia, having already closed seven of eight border crossings between them to traffic.

More than 30,000 migrants, many of them Syrian refugees, have entered European Union member Croatia from Serbia since Tuesday last week, when Hungary barred their entry to the EU by sealing its southern border with Serbia with a metal fence.

They are being bussed by Serbia direct to the Croatian border, having entered Serbia from Macedonia, and trekking through fields beyond the official border crossings. Croatia says it cannot cope with the numbers, saying Serbia should send them to Hungary and Romania too.

With a queue of trucks on the Belgrade-Zagreb highway 12 km (7 miles) long, Serbia gave Croatia until the end of Wednesday to lift the cargo blockade or face political, legal and economic retaliation.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said he had spoken by phone with his Croatian counterpart, Zoran Milanovic, and that they would continue discussions to find a resolution. Without a deal by midnight on Wednesday, he said, Serbia would implement a package of measures against Zagreb.

“I believe we will be able to agree with our neighbour,” Vucic said. But, he warned, “Serbia must reply to the destruction of its economic integrity and national policy.”

“WE’RE NOT FOOLS”

Minutes before he spoke, the Croatian government said it had decided to ease the blockade to allow through only trucks carrying perishable goods. But frustrated drivers were livid, and as night fell they parked several trucks across the main Bajakovo-Batrovci crossing in no-man’s land, halting all road traffic.

“We had to do it,” said a driver from the Serbian town of Novi Pazar who gave his name as Emin.

“We’ve been here for almost three days and no one even come to ask us whether we’re hungry or thirsty or to bring us anything.”

Both Serbia and Croatia were part of socialist Yugoslavia but Croatia broke away in 1991 and fought a war against Belgrade-backed Serb rebels until 1995.

Croatia joined the EU in 2013, and Serbia wants to follow suit.

Croatia is sending migrants north across its own border with Hungary – which in turn sends them to Austria – but is struggling to keep pace with the influx.

A new migrant crossing point emerged overnight at the Croatian village of Bapska, with hundreds seen walking through rolling hills to a new camp for 4,000 at Opatovac, which is fast reaching capacity.

Several thousand more were waiting in no-man’s land between Sid in Serbia and Tovarnik in Croatia; some spent the night sleeping in a cemetery.

“We’re not fools; we see what they’re doing,” Milanovic said on Tuesday.

“I think it is perfectly clear that what we are seeing is organised transport of migrants directly to Croatia (from Serbia),” his interior minister, Ranko Ostojic, told RTL television.

Milanovic, nevertheless, said he was confident Serbia was bluffing.

“Croatia is an EU member. Serbia cannot, even if it wants, impose measures against Croatia as it has an agreement with the EU,” he told reporters. “Whatever Serbia does, or thinks to do, would be against the EU and I’m sure Serbia will not do that.”

Additional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic in Opatovac, Croatia and Igor Ilic and Zoran Radosavljevic in Zagreb; Writing by Matt Robinson and James Dalgleish

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