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Merkel's coalition partner accuses her of about-turn on refugees

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s junior coalition partner accused her of doing an about-turn on her refugee policy since she opened Germany’s borders to thousands of migrants in September.

German Vice Chancellor and Social Democrats (SPD) leader Sigmar Gabriel told Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine that Merkel had made the right decision to let in the refugees last year, responding to a humanitarian emergency.

But she had since changed her tune, he added. “I won’t glorify her refugee policy either because in the meantime she has completely changed her policy,” he was quoted as saying in the interview published on Saturday.

“Now, after Austria, Hungary and Slovenia have closed the Balkan route, she says: ‘We’re not taking in any refugees from Idomeni (a camp on the Greek border) because people could look for accommodation there.’ If I may say so, that’s a 180-degree turn,” Gabriel added.

Merkel has faced months of accusations of being too open to migrants, both from the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD), and her conservative allies in Bavaria, the first point of entry for many migrants.

The fresh criticism from her junior coalition partner for changing tack by refusing to take some migrants highlights the political tightrope she has had to walk over the highly-charged issue in Europe’s largest economy.

Germany took in more than a million migrants last year, mostly people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa, but the numbers have fallen this year.

On whether Merkel could consider that drop a personal success, Gabriel said that was at best a “half truth”, adding that the numbers had declined because the Balkan route had been closed and because Turkey was preventing so many boats from setting sail.

In March the European Union and Turkey struck a deal that aimed to give Turks visa-free travel to Europe in return for stemming the flow of migrants. The EU is insisting Turkey meet 72 criteria, including reining in its broad anti-terror laws, to get visa-free travel and on Friday Ankara said talks on this had reached an impasse.

Gabriel said Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wanted to get visa facilitation without meeting all the conditions but added that Europe could not accept that.

He said he did not expect the EU-Turkey deal to solve the refugee crisis because once the route to Europe via Greek islands is closed, migrants will look for other routes such as via Bulgaria or via Libya and Italy.

Reporting by Michelle Martin; Editing by Andrew Heavens