Czech police nab smugglers in new border checks as migrant flows spike

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STARY HROZENKOV, Czech Republic, Sept 29 (Reuters) - Czech police chasing a vanload of migrants fired warning shots on Thursday as they began checks on the border with Slovakia to combat a sharp rise in people, mostly Syrians, heading illegally to western Europe.

Police intercepted over 100 migrants and detained nine suspected people smugglers as they began checks on all 27 road and rail entry points and on patrols outside frontier crossings.

The Czechs have detained around 12,000 illegal migrants so far this year, a 12-fold increase from a year ago.

The vast majority have been Syrians, mostly coming from Turkey, the government has said, and they continue travel to Germany and elsewhere after they were checked by police.

Speaking on Czech Television, Police President Martin Vondrasek said police fired three warning shots as they chased and detained an Iraqi man driving a van with 16 illegal migrants, assumed to be from Syria.

Over 500 police officers will deploy on the 252-km (157-mile) border, initially for 10 days. The Czech decision was followed by Austria, which also started checks on Thursday on its border with Slovakia. read more

"The aim is to give smugglers' groups a clear sign that they face a barrier here," Interior Minister Vit Rakusan said at a briefing during a visit to the border shortly after midnight.

Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger has criticised the Czech border checks as against the principles of the border check-free Schengen area within the European Union, Slovak media reported.

Migrants travelling onward often pass through Prague's main train station. Some sleep in a park in near-freezing weather.

Syrian Khaled Cheiko, 26, said at the station that he felt rising racism in Turkey, where he had lived the past six years, and now wanted to go to Britain.

"I used to work and my work was good, but we faced racism, mistreatment and strict laws that were put on us, to a point where you can’t move from a place to another."

Syrian Ramez Rizk, also coming form Turkey, said he planned to go to Belgium after a tough journey through the Balkans.

"We went through harsh periods with human traffickers and smugglers. They exploited us with money and threatened us in the forests," he said, adding he was treated well by Czech police.

"We looked death in the face to get here."

Reporting by Radovan Stoklasa, Jiri Skacel and Jan Lopatka, additonal reporting by Yara Abi Nader in Beirut Writing by Jan Lopatka, Editing by William Maclean

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