Rights group urges U.S. to sanction China over Xinjiang camps

Flags of U.S. and China are displayed at American International Chamber of Commerce (AICC)'s booth during China International Fair for Trade in Services in Beijing, China, May 28, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United States, embroiled in a trade war with China, should also impose sanctions on China for detaining an estimated one million Uighurs in its Xinjiang region, where repression has not abated, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.

The Trump administration has been weighing sanctions against Chinese officials, including Xinjiang Communist Party chief Chen Quanguo, since late last year, and though it has ramped up criticism it has held back from imposing the measures.

China has faced growing global condemnation for setting up complexes in the remote western region that U.N. experts describe as mass detention centers holding more than one million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims.

In March, China’s vice foreign minister defended what Beijing calls its vocational training centers for Muslims and said its “campuses” would be closed down gradually as extremist ideology is vanquished in the region.

“Here we have got a U.S. administration that is clearly fine with the idea of imposing serious economic sanctions, but then seems to be lagging behind on imposing them for serious human rights violations,” Sophie Richardson, China director of Human Rights Watch, told a briefing in Geneva.

A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers last month faulted the Trump administration for failing so far to impose sanctions over China’s alleged rights abuses against its Muslim minority and called for punitive measures against a senior Communist Party official and Chinese companies.

The lawmakers called on the administration to apply sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. This federal law allows the U.S. government to target human rights violators around the world with freezes on any U.S. assets, U.S. travel bans and prohibitions on Americans doing business with them.

“We believe that senior Xinjiang officials and national officials who are implicated in the crisis in Xinjiang should be subject to global Magnitsky sanctions,” Richardson said.

“The situation in Xinjiang is far from improving. If anything, (there is) the failure to release large numbers of people, and the desire to spin this as some sort of essential national security strategy that really is about vocational training rather than arbitrary detention,” she said.

The U.S. Senate and House are considering draft bills, variations of the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, both of which enjoy “very broad bipartisan support”, she added.

Human Rights Watch published a report this month entitled “China’s Algorithms of Repression”, on a mass surveillance app used by Xinjiang police to track citizens that has led to arrests.

“One of our concerns coming out of this project really is about these oceanic data sets that the Chinese government has now gathered and how exactly they are being used,” Richardson said.

The U.S.-based activist group is lobbying the 47 member states of the U.N. Human Rights Council to hold China to account for abuses at the three-week session opening on June 24.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Stephen Powell)

U.S. says China’s treatment of Muslim minority worst abuses ‘since the 1930s’

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the media at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines, March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

By Lesley Wroughton and David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department on Wednesday slammed human rights violations in China, saying the sort of abuses it had inflicted on its Muslim minorities had not been seen “since the 1930s.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo highlighted abuses in Iran, South Sudan, Nicaragua and China in the department’s annual “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” but told reporters that China was “in a league of its own when it comes to human rights violations.”

“For me, you haven’t seen things like this since the 1930s,” Michael Kozak, the head of the State Department’s human rights and democracy bureau told the same briefing, referring to abuses of China’s Muslim minority.

“Rounding up, in some estimations … in the millions of people, putting them into camps, and torturing them, abusing them, and trying to basically erase their culture and their religion and so on from their DNA. It’s just remarkably awful.”

Kozak said China had initially denied there even were camps, and is now saying “there are camps, but they’re some kind of labor training camps and it’s all very voluntary.”

The governor of Xinjiang said on Tuesday that China is running boarding schools, not concentration camps, in the far western region of China. The vast area bordering Central Asia is home to millions of Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities.

“That does not match the facts that we and others are saying, but at least we’re starting to make them realize there is a lot of international scrutiny on this,” Kozak said, adding: “It is one of the most serious human rights violations in the world today.”

The report said that in the past year, the Chinese government had significantly intensified its campaign of mass detention of members of Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang region.

It said authorities there were reported to have arbitrarily detained 800,000 to possibly more than two million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs and other Muslims in internment camps designed to erase religious and ethnic identities.

A perimeter fence is constructed around what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China September 4, 2018. This centre, situated between regional capital Urumqi and tourist spot Turpan, is among the largest known ones, and was still undergoing extensive construction and expansion at the time the photo was taken. Police in Dabancheng detained two Reuters journalists for more than four hours after the photos were taken. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

A perimeter fence is constructed around what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China September 4, 2018. This centre, situated between regional capital Urumqi and tourist spot Turpan, is among the largest known ones, and was still undergoing extensive construction and expansion at the time the photo was taken. Police in Dabancheng detained two Reuters journalists for more than four hours after the photos were taken. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The State Department report said government officials in China had claimed the camps were needed to combat terrorism, separatism and extremism. However, international media, human rights organizations and former detainees have reported that security officials in the camps abused, tortured and killed some detainees, it said.

Pompeo also said the Iranian government had killed more than 20 people and arrested thousands without due process for protesting for their rights “continuing a pattern of cruelty the regime has inflicted on the Iranian people for the last four decades.”

In South Sudan, he said that military forces inflicted sexual violence against civilians based on their political allegiances and ethnicity, while in Nicaragua, peaceful protesters had faced sniper fire and government critics had “faced a policy of exile, jail or death.”

The report also revised its usual description of the Golan Heights from “Israeli-occupied” to “Israeli-controlled.”

A separate section on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, areas that Israel captured along with the Golan Heights in a 1967 war in the Middle East, also did not refer to those territories as being “occupied,” or under “occupation.”

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton and David Brunnstrom; editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Paul Simao and G Crosse)

End ‘containment’ of asylum-seekers on islands, aid groups tell Greek PM

: Refugees and migrants line up for food distribution at the Moria migrant camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece October 6, 2016.

ATHENS (Reuters) – Over a dozen human rights groups and aid organizations wrote to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Monday urging him to end the “containment” of asylum seekers in island camps.

More than 13,000 people, mostly Syrians and Iraqis fleeing years of war, are living in five camps on Greek islands close to Turkey, government figures show. Four of those camps are holding two to three times as many people as they were designed for.

Those who arrive on Greek islands following a European deal with Turkey last year to stem the flow are forbidden from traveling to mainland until their asylum applications are processed, and those who do not qualify are deported.

Applications have piled up and rulings can take weeks. A recent sharp rise in arrivals has piled additional misery on overcrowded facilities.

The 19 signatories, which include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Rescue Committee and Oxfam, said the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Kos, Chios and Leros had been “transformed into places of indefinite confinement.”

“We urge you to put an end to the ongoing ‘containment policy’ of trapping asylum seekers on the islands … and to immediately transfer asylum seekers to the mainland and meet their protection needs,” they wrote.

They described conditions as “abysmal” and said many asylum-seekers lacked access to adequate and timely procedures and protection. Some have been on the islands for 19 months.

“Reception conditions are deteriorating, and gaps in basic services, especially medical, are increasing,” they wrote.

Thousands of people, including young children, are crammed into tents with only a cloth separating one family from another, the groups said, and conditions were particularly harsh for pregnant women.

Nearly 23,000 people have arrived in Greece this year, a fraction compared to the nearly 1 million who arrived in 2015, but state-run camps are struggling to cope with the numbers.

As an emergency measure, the government has said it plans to move about 2,000 people from Samos and Lesbos to the mainland.

In recent weeks, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) its research showed a mental health emergency was unfolding in migrant camps on the islands, fueled by poor living conditions, neglect and violence.

The United Nations refugee agency called on Greece to speed up preparations at those camps, saying they were ill-prepared for winter.

 

(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Toby Chopra)

 

Lost children are legacy of battle for Iraq’s Mosul

Nine-year-old Iraqi girl Meriam looks out as she stands inside a house, east of Mosul, Iraq July 28, 2017.

By Angus MacSwan

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) – Thousands of children have been separated from their parents in the nine-month battle for Mosul and the preceding years of Islamic State rule in northern Iraq – some found wandering alone and afraid among the rubble, others joining the refugee exodus from the pulverized city.

In some cases their parents have been killed. Families have been split up as they fled street fighting, air strikes or Islamic State repression. Many are traumatized from the horrors they have endured.

Protecting the youngsters and reuniting them with their families is an urgent task for humanitarian organizations.

“These children are extremely vulnerable,” said Mariyampillai Mariyaselvam, a child protection specialist with UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund). “Most have gone through a very painful history.”

Nine-year-old Meriam had left her family one day last October to visit her grandmother in west Mosul, then under Islamic State rule. The government offensive to recapture the city began, so she stayed there.

Her father Hassan told Reuters he had been a policeman but quit when the radical Islamists seized Mosul in 2014, fearing he would be targeted. He, his second wife, along with Meriam and her three half-siblings moved from dwelling to dwelling.

“We were living in many different places, moving around. Meriam stayed with her grandmother but when the bridges were shut down, I could not cross the river to see her,” he said, speaking in the abandoned, half-built house in east Mosul where the family is now squatting.

They eventually fled to the Hassan Sham displaced persons camp but Meriam was trapped in the west.

After government forces retook the neighborhood in June, she and her grandmother made it to the Khazer camp. Her father asked UNICEF for help and they managed to track down his daughter. They were reunited in Hassan Sham later that month.

“I was hearing bombing and killing every day. I did not believe they would find her,” he said.

Nine-year-old Iraqi girl Meriam smiles as she looks at her father Hassan in a house, east of Mosul, Iraq July 28, 2017. Picture taken July 28, 2017.

Nine-year-old Iraqi girl Meriam smiles as she looks at her father Hassan in a house, east of Mosul, Iraq July 28, 2017. Picture taken July 28, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

Life is still hard for the family. They left the camp to return to the city with their few possessions, but the house owner wants to evict them. Hassan makes ends meet by finding day jobs. But at least they are together, he said, cuddling his daughter as he spoke.

Meriam, a bright-eyed girl with a shy smile, said she would like to go to school.

“I have never been to school. I would like to have books, a backpack, and to learn letters. That is my dream,” she said.

 

MOSUL SURGE

UNICEF says children in shock had been found in debris or hidden in tunnels in Mosul. Some had lost their families while fleeing to safety but sometimes parents had been forced to abandon children or give them away. Many children were forced to fight or carry out violent acts, it said in a statement. They were also vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

UNICEF’s Mariyaselvam, speaking to Reuters in Erbil, said the number of children coming out of Mosul had increased in the past few months as the battle reached its climax.

He explained the distinction between separated children, who are split from their legal guardians but are with friends or relatives, and unaccompanied children, who are alone and without care or guardians.

It was difficult to give an accurate number but child protection agencies have recorded more than 3,000 separated and over 800 unaccompanied children, he said. The latter are the priority.

The task of rescuing and identifying them begins in the field, with relief agency teams placed in strategic locations where people are fleeing. Registration points are set up. Mobile child protection teams also visit households. Then UNICEF and its local partners begin tracing the legal guardians or relatives.

“Our primary focus is care and protection for them. We try to make sure that they are provided immediate care,” he said.

In camps, they are usually placed with people on a temporary basis. If parents or other relatives cannot be identified, a legal process begins to put them in care homes with government permission. If all efforts fail, there is a foster program.

From the start, the children need specialized services such as psychological counseling. Some need mental health care. But the Iraqi government lacks sufficient resources or infrastructure to handle the challenge, Mariyaselvam said.

Mosul, which served as the capital of Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria for three years, provided a particular set of problems. UNICEF and the government followed cases to ensure children were safe from abuse and exploitation once they were back in the community.

“The situation we are seeing is that some children are not being accepted by the community because of their affiliation,” he said, referring to the children of Islamic State fighters and supporters.

Some youngsters were roaming the city streets and some were being used as child labor, he said. Families who had lost their homes or fled could sometimes simply not cope.

“It is going to require a lot of time and a lot of resources and specialized services for them to rebuild their lives, including sending them back to school,” Mariyaselvam said.

And with the war still going on as Islamic State retreats and a government offensive to recapture the IS-held town of Tal Afar expected soon, a new wave of lost children is anticipated.

 

(Reporting by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Dale Hudson)

 

U.N. alarmed at migrants dying of cold, ‘dire’ situation in Greece

refugee boy rides bike through snow

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Refugees and migrants are dying in Europe’s cold snap and governments must do more to help them rather than pushing them back from borders and subjecting them to violence, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said on Friday.

“Children are particularly prone to respiratory illnesses at a time like this. It’s about saving lives, not about red tape and keeping to bureaucratic arrangements,” Sarah Crowe, a spokeswoman for the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF told a U.N. briefing in Geneva. “The dire situation right now is Greece.”

UNHCR spokeswoman Cecile Pouilly cited five deaths so far from cold and said about 1,000 people including children were in unheated tents and dormitories on the Greek island of Samos, calling for them to be transferred to shelter on the mainland.

Hundreds of others had been moved to better accommodation on the islands of Lesbos and Chios in the past few days.

In Serbia, about 80 percent of the 7,300 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are staying in heated government shelters, but 1,200 men were sleeping rough in informal sites in Belgrade.

The bodies of two Iraqi men and a young Somali woman were found close to the Turkish border in Bulgaria and two Somali teenagers were hospitalized with frostbite after five days in a forest, Pouilly said. The body of a young Pakistani man was found along the same border in late December.

A 20-year-old Afghan man died after crossing the Evros River on the Greece-Turkey land border at night when temperatures were below -10 degrees Celsius. The body of a young Pakistani man was found on the Turkish side of the border with Bulgaria.

“Given the harsh winter conditions, we are particularly concerned by reports that authorities in all countries along the Western Balkans route continue to push back refugees and migrants from inside their territory to neighboring countries,” Pouilly said.

Some refugees and migrants said police subjected them to violence and many said their phones were confiscated or destroyed, preventing them from calling for help, she said.

“Some even reported items of clothing being confiscated thus further exposing them to the harsh winter conditions,” she said. “These practices are simply unacceptable and must be stopped.”

Joel Millman, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said migrant movements across the Mediterranean had “started out in a big way” in 2017, and the death toll for the year was already 27.

The World Meteorological Organization said a movement of cold Siberian air into southeastern Europe had driven temperatures in Greece, Italy, Turkey and Romania 5-10 degrees Celsius lower than normal. Such cold outbreaks happen about once in 35 years on average, the WMO said.

(additional reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Iraqi camps overwhelmed as residents flee Falluja fighting

Refugee camp in Iraq

By Stephen Kalin

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi government-run camps struggled on Sunday to shelter people fleeing Falluja, as the military battled Islamic State militants in the city’s northern districts.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over the jihadists on Friday after troops reached the city center, following a four-week U.S.-backed assault.

But shooting, suicide bombs and mortar attacks continue.

More than 82,000 civilians have evacuated Falluja, an hour’s drive west of Baghdad, since the campaign began and up to 25,000 more are likely on the move, the United Nations said.

Yet camps are already overflowing with escapees who trekked several kilometers (miles) past Islamic State snipers and minefields in sweltering heat to find there was not even shade.

“People have run and walked for days. They left Falluja with nothing,” said Lise Grande, U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq. “They have nothing and they need everything.”

The exodus, which is likely to be many times larger if an assault on the northern Islamic State stronghold of Mosul goes ahead as planned later this year, has taken the government and humanitarian groups off guard.

With attention focused for months on Mosul, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in May that the army would prioritize Falluja, the first Iraqi city seized by the militants in early 2014.

He ordered measures on Saturday to help escapees and 10 new camps will soon go up, but the government does not even have a handle on the number of displaced people, many of whom are stranded out in the open or packed several families to a tent.

One site hosting around 1,800 people has only one latrine, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

“We implore the Iraqi government to take charge of this humanitarian disaster unfolding on our watch,” the aid group’s country director Nasr Muflahi said.

“WE JUST WANT OUR MEN”

Iraq’s cash-strapped government has struggled to meet basic needs for more than 3.4 million people across Iraq displaced by conflict, appealing for international funding and relying on local religious networks for support.

Yet unlike other battles, where many civilians sought refuge in nearby cities or the capital, people fleeing Falluja have been barred from entering Baghdad, just 60 km (40 miles) away, and aid officials note a lack of community mobilization.

Many Iraqis consider Falluja an irredeemable bulwark of Sunni Muslim militancy and regard anyone still there when the assault began as an Islamic State supporter. A bastion of the Sunni insurgency against U.S. forces following the 2003 invasion, it was seen as a launchpad for bombings in Baghdad.

The participation of Shi’ite militias in the battle alongside the army raised fears of sectarian killings, and the authorities have made arrests related to allegations that militiamen executed dozens of fleeing Sunni men.

Formal government forces are screening men to prevent Islamic State militants from disguising themselves as civilians to slip out of Falluja. Thousands have been freed and scores referred to the courts, but many others remain unaccounted for, security sources told Reuters.

At a camp in Amiriyat Falluja on Thursday, Fatima Khalifa said she had not heard from her husband and their 19-year-old son since they were taken from a nearby town two weeks earlier.

“We don’t know where they are or where they were taken,” she said. “We don’t want rice or cooking oil, we just want our men.”

(Additional reporting by Saif Hameed in Amiriyat Falluja; Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Alexander Smith)

Greece to begin evacuating migrants camped at border within days

A woman holding an umbrella walks in a flooded field during heavy rainfall at a makeshift camp for refugees and migrants at the Greek-Macedonian border

THENS (Reuters) – Greece will begin in the coming days to evacuate a makeshift camp on its northern border with Macedonia where thousands of migrants and refugees have been stranded in dire conditions for months, the government said on Monday.

The sprawling camp in a field near the Greek town of Idomeni sprang up in February after border shutdowns across the Balkans left the people stranded there. They had mostly been heading for Germany and other wealthier northern European countries.

The migrants, mostly from conflict zones in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, have refused to move despite having to sleep in the open in very difficult conditions or being tear-gassed by Macedonian police. They have largely ignored appeals by Greek authorities to move to organized camps set up around Greece.

Giorgos Kyritsis, a government spokesman for the migration crisis, told state TV the evacuation process would begin “tomorrow, the day after and will be completed in a week, at most 10 days”.

Asked if the government planned to remove all 8,000 people estimated to be living in the camp, Kyritsis said: “Yes. A thing like Idomeni cannot be maintained. It only serves the interests of smugglers.”

A police source said 50 riot police squads would be deployed to Idomeni for the gradual removal of the migrants starting from Tuesday evening. Some 2,000 people who have been blocking the railtrack on the border will be removed first, the source said.

The tracks have been blocked by the migrants for more than a month, forcing trains to re-route through Bulgaria further to the east. Some wagons loaded with goods have been stranded on the tracks at Idomeni for weeks.

Kyritsis said that while the government did plan to reopen the railway it was not planning a police sweep operation at the camp.

“Removing all the refugees from the disgrace which is Idomeni is in their own interest. The railtrack will open for the train to pass through normally but the fundamental thing is for the people to be transferred to where the conditions are humane.”

(Reporting by Karolina Tagaris and Theodora Arvanitidou; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Celebrities urge British government to reunite refugee children with families

Refugees and migrants children interact with each other at a temporary transit facility at the British sovereign base of Dhekelia in Cyprus

By Lin Taylor

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Celebrities, athletes and pop stars have urged the British government to do more to reunite unaccompanied refugee children with their families in Britain.

Launching a campaign by the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) on Friday, tennis champion Andy Murray and actor Roger Moore were among celebrities calling on the government to take in more lone children stranded at migrant camps across Europe.

According to UNICEF, tens of thousands of unaccompanied refugee children are stranded in Europe, even though many of them have relatives living in Britain.

“For these children the chance to be reunited with their family in the U.K. could be life-changing and (would) make sure they’re kept safe from violence, exploitation and abuse,” said Murray.

Olympic cycling gold medalist Chris Hoy said: “There are unaccompanied refugee children in Europe risking their lives to reach relatives in the UK despite having the legal right to be brought here safely. The government must do more to reunite [them].”

In one case cited by UNICEF, a 16-year-old refugee boy referred to as Bilal had left Syria when he was 14 to join his brother in London, and had had to travel alone for more than a year before the pair were reunited.

“When I made it to France, I had to wait in the Calais Jungle for seven months and it was a living hell,” Bilal was quoted as saying.

“I saw people die trying to escape. I saw people beaten to death in the camp… I want people like me, who have family in the UK, to come here and be safe. It is taking too long and too many children are suffering,” he said.

Prime Minister David Cameron has said that children fleeing the conflict in Syria are “relatively safe” once they reach Europe and that the government does not want to encourage more Syrians, including unaccompanied children, to attempt the hazardous journey to the West.

In April the Home Office (Interior Ministry) said that up to 3,000 Syrian and other child refugees from camps in the Middle East and North Africa are to be resettled in Britain over the next four years.

UNICEF said that if the Home Office had 10 more officials working to reunite families, all 157 lone children at the Calais camp who have relatives in Britain could be living with their families by September.

Other celebrities supporting the campaign included singers Jessie Ware, Emma Bunton and Rita Ora, actor Ewan McGregor, and model Claudia Schiffer.

(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Jo Griffin.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, conflicts, land rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, women’s rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)

Syrian military deny targeting camps, U.N condemns ‘murderous attacks’

People walk though burned tents at a camp for internally displaced people near

BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) – The Syrian military denied it had conducted air strikes on camps near the Turkish border on Thursday which killed at least 28 people, but the U.N. human rights chief said initial reports suggested a government plane was responsible.

The death toll from attack on the camp for internally displaced people near the town of Sarmada included women and children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, and could rise further because many people were seriously wounded.

“There is no truth to reports … about the Syrian air force targeting a camp for the displaced in the Idlib countryside”, the Syrian military said in a statement on Friday carried by state media.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein said the attacks were almost certainly a deliberate war crime.

“Given these tent settlements have been in these locations for several weeks, and can be clearly viewed from the air, it is extremely unlikely that these murderous attacks were an accident,” Zeid said in a statement.

“My staff, along with other organizations, will leave no stone unturned in their efforts to research and record evidence of what appears to be a particularly despicable and calculated crime against an extremely vulnerable group of people,” he said.

“Initial reports suggest the attacks were carried out by Syrian Government aircraft, but this remains to be verified.”

Footage shared on social media showed rescue workers putting out fires which still burned among charred tent frames, pitched in a muddy field. White smoke billowed from smoldering ashes, and a burned and bloodied torso could be seen.

Sarmada lies about 30 km (20 miles) west of Aleppo, where a cessation of hostilities brokered by Russia and the United States had brought a measure of relief on Thursday.

Zeid said most of the people in the camps had been forced to flee their homes in Aleppo in February because of sustained aerial attacks there.

He said he was also alarmed about the situation in Syria’s Hama central prison, where detainees had taken control of a section of the prison and were holding some guards hostage.

“Heavily armed security forces are surrounding the prison and we fear that a possibly lethal assault is imminent. Hundreds of lives are at stake, and I call on the authorities to resort to mediation, or other alternatives to force,” Zeid said.

He urged governments on the U.N. Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court so that there is “a clear path to punishment for those who commit crimes like these”.

(Reporting by John Davison in Beirut and Tom Miles in Geneva; Editing by Gareth Jones and Dominic Evans)

Macedonian Police Fire Tear Gas on Migrants

Men try to break a border security fence during scuffles between Macedonian police and migrants and refugees near a makeshift camp at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idome

IDOMENI, Greece (Reuters) – Macedonian police fired tear gas on Wednesday to disperse around 50 migrants stranded in Greece who tried to pull down part of the razor wire fence separating the two countries, a Reuters witness said.

Scuffles briefly broke out and Greek riot police later intervened to break up the crowd.

Tensions have boiled over at the makeshift migrant camp near the town of Idomeni, where more than 10,000 migrants and refugees have been stranded since February, when Balkan countries shut their borders to anyone wanting to head north.

Hundreds of migrants were injured on Sunday in clashes with Macedonian police, who fired tear gas and rubber bullets after a group tried to storm the border.

The Balkan route was the preferred gateway into western and northern Europe last year for around 1 million migrants from the Middle East and beyond.

Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov and his Slovenian and Croatian counterparts, Borut Pahor and Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, later on Wednesday visited a migrant transit center just inside Macedonia, which houses 135 migrants trapped by the border closures.

After meeting some of the Croatian and Slovenian police who are helping to guard the Macedonian border, Ivanov said his country’s authorities would keep the migrant route closed in line with EU policies.

“The latest incidents on the border showed there is a great pressure from the migrants to re-open this corridor, but … we will respect that decision,” he told reporters.

(Reporting by Stoyan Nenov, Kole Casule and Aleksandar Vasovic; editing by Richard Balmforth)