Migrants rush past police into Macedonia amid chaos, lost children

On the second day of clashes between Middle Eastern refugees attempting to reach Europe, and Macedonian police attempting to block them, a group pushed through baton-wielding police amid stun grenades, injuries, and lost children.

REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski
A little girl cries as she tries to take shelter from the rain on Greece's border with Macedonia, as she waits with her family to enter Gevgelija, Macedonia August 22, 2015. Police and soldiers deployed along Macedonia's southern border with Greece struggled on Saturday to control the numbers of refugees and migrants, many of them fleeing Middle East conflicts, seeking to reach western Europe.

Thousands of migrants on Saturday rushed past baton-wielding Macedonian police who were attempting to block them from entering Macedonia from Greece. Police fired stun grenades and several people were injured in the border clashes.

The tumult started when police decided to allow a small group of migrants with young children to cross the frontier and crowds in the back squeezed them toward the shielded police wall. Many women, at least one pregnant, and children fell to the ground apparently fainting after squeezing past the cordon.

Then thousands of others, including women with babies and men carrying small children, used the moment to run across a field not protected by barbed wire to enter Macedonia.

Police fired stun grenades, but didn't manage to stop the rush.

There were no immediate reports of the number and extent of injuries. Many children also lost their parents in the chaos and were left shouting "mama, baba."

Several hundred, mostly elderly and children remained on the Greek side of the border when police restored order.

It was the second day of clashes between the migrants and Macedonian police who are attempting to block them from heading north toward the European Union.

On Friday, police fired stun grenades and clashed with the migrants, a day after Macedonia's government declared a state of emergency on the frontier to stop the human tide. At least 10 people were injured in the melee.

Both Greece and Macedonia have seen an unprecedented wave of migrants this year, most fleeing wars in Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq. More than 160,000 have arrived so far in Greece, mostly crossing in inflatable dinghies from the nearby Turkish coast — an influx that has overwhelmed Greek authorities and the country's small Aegean islands. Some 45,000 crossed through Macedonia over the past two months.

Few, if any, of the migrants want to remain in Greece, which is in the grip of a financial crisis. Most head straight to the country's northern border with Macedonia, where they cram onto trains and head north through Serbia and Hungary on their way to more prosperous EU countries such as Germany, the Netherlands or Sweden.

Friday night, police allowed only small groups of families with children to cross the border by walking on railway tracks to a station in the Macedonian town of Gevgelija, where most take trains to the border with Serbia before heading further north toward EU-member Hungary.

Those who could not cross spent the rainy and chilly night in the open with little food. They massed close to a razor wire separating them from machine-gun toting Macedonian policemen. Some raised their babies above their heads to try to persuade the policemen to let them through.

"These men are heartless," said Yousef, a Syrian refugee who gave only his first name, as he held a little wide-eyed girl with curly hair in his arms and pointed toward the policemen. "They don't care about our tragedy."

A police officer told The Associated Press that the force is only following the government's orders to block the refugees from entering the country.

"Until we receive another order, the situation here will remain like this," said the officer, who refused to be named because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

As heavy rain poured, some migrants took off their shirts and booed and shouted insults at the policemen in camouflage fatigues. Others took shelter inside dozens of small tents or under a few trees on a muddy field.

Last week, there were chaotic scenes at the Gevgelija train station involving hundreds of migrants trying to board the trains.

On Saturday, Rama Kabul from Syria walked the railway track in the opposite direction from the station pleading with two Macedonian policemen pushing her back with riot shields to let her brother — who remained trapped behind the razor fence on the border — join her.

"They took me out and left him there," Kabul said with tears in her eyes. "I just want to talk to him."

Macedonian police said they started blocking the refugees on the 50-kilometer (30-mile) frontier "for the security of citizens who live in the border areas and for better treatment of the migrants."

"Macedonian authorities should be protecting migrants, including children and those among them who may be fleeing war and persecution, not giving the police a green light to fire at them," Emina Cerimovic, research fellow at the rights group, said in a statement.

Until now, the border has been porous, with only a few patrols on each side. Sealing it disrupts the Balkan corridor for migrants who start in Turkey, take boats to Greece or walk to Bulgaria, then make their way through Macedonia and Serbia before heading farther north.

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