Austria plans fence to stop migrants at major border crossing with Italy

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria outlined plans on Wednesday to erect a fence at a border crossing with Italy that is a vital link between northern and southern Europe, escalating a stand-off between the two states over how to handle a migration crisis.

Migrants are crossing the Mediterranean from Africa to Italy in growing numbers and Austria has said Rome must stop them traveling onwards towards northern Europe or it will have to introduce border controls at the Brenner Pass in the Alps.

But with Austrian preparations for controls already under way, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said Austria’s move was “shamelessly against European rules, as well as being against history, against logic and against the future”.

Austrian police in the Alpine province of Tyrol, which borders on northern Italy, presented plans for the installation of facilities at Brenner to inspect vehicles and process migrants, in the event formal controls are introduced.

Building work on some of the facilities at Brenner began two weeks ago but their scale was not immediately known.

“A security fence of 370 meters (1,220 feet) is planned,” a Tyrol police spokesman said, adding that the fence was part of a system aimed at channeling migrants in the deep valley that the Brenner Pass runs through.

Whether the fence is built, however, will depend on the outcome of talks in Rome on Thursday between Austrian Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka and his Italian counterpart, the spokesman said.

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Austria has taken an increasingly hard line on how to deal with the hundreds of thousands of asylum-seeking migrants, many of them fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere, who have poured into Europe over the past year.

After throwing open its borders to the arrivals with Germany in September, Vienna has since said it cannot cope with the numbers, and it coordinated border restrictions that shut down the main Balkans migrant route from Greece to northern Europe.

Italy and Austria are part of the European Union’s Schengen open-border zone, but free movement has been jeopardized by the reimposition of controls at some key crossings by countries affected by the migrant influx.

Austria’s governing coalition of Social Democrats and the conservative People’s Party is also under political pressure as the anti-immigration Freedom Party’s candidate secured a record share of the vote in Sunday’s presidential election.

The Austrian parliament on Wednesday passed tough new asylum measures - including one under which migrants could be turned away at the border within an hour - that could be activated if lawmakers determined a threat to public order.

The Brenner Pass is the busiest route through the Alps for heavy goods vehicles and any controls there will slow traffic on an important corridor to Germany, Italy’s top trading partner.

“The construction work will be completed with or without a fence by the end of May,” the Tyrol police spokesman said, adding that border controls could be introduced before or after then.

Writing by Francois Murphy; Editing by Mark Heinrich