Quake hits Zagreb, PM urges social distancing as residents flee buildings

By Igor Ilic

ZAGREB (Reuters) – A large earthquake struck near the Croatian capital Zagreb on Sunday, critically injuring a teenager caught in a collapsed building in the city center and prompting appeals for social distancing after people rushed out onto the streets.

Sixteen other people were injured, including another minor who was badly hurt, and the 5.3 magnitude quake caused fires and power blackouts in parts of the capital, hospital and emergency services said.

People ran from their apartment buildings to their cars as pieces of the facades started falling off. Dozens of cars were also damaged by debris which fell off buildings.

Authorities said around 70 buildings were damaged.

Damages on Zagreb’s cathedral and debris are seen following an earthquake, in Zagreb, Croatia March 22, 2020. REUTERS/Antonio Bronic

Ministers warned people not to walk close to buildings and beware of falling debris due to a strong wind. They also urged them to stay apart from one another as the country struggles to contain the spread of coronavirus.

“We are fighting two enemies at the moment, one is invisible and the other is unpredictable,” Interior Minister Davor Bozinovic said.

So far, Croatia has reported 254 cases of the virus and one death.

Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said the government would provide accommodation in the students’ dormitory in Zagreb for up to 1,800 people whose homes were damaged.

He said the quake was the biggest to hit Zagreb in 140 years. It struck 6 km (4 miles) north of the city and was felt across the Western Balkans.

Zarko Rasic, head of the Zagreb Emergency Medicine Institute, a children’s hospital, said a 15-year-old was in a critical condition after being found by an emergency services team under a collapsed building and another minor had been admitted with head injuries from a falling roof.

The Zagreb Fire Department said firefighting and rescue operations were ongoing at several locations.

Plenkovic said the army had been called in to help clean up debris in Zagreb and urged citizens to “stay outside and keep your distance”.

“We are facing two crises now,” Plenkovic told a news conference. “Let us not forget the coronavirus epidemics … Individual discipline and responsibility is of utmost importance.”

Women walk past ruins of a building following an earthquake, in Zagreb, Croatia March 22, 2020. REUTERS/Antonio Bronic

Local media reported that many people had headed out of Zagreb, prompting police to organize checkpoints on the highway to check if they were violating self-isolation.

The German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) downgraded the magnitude of the quake to 5.3 from an initial reading of 6.0. Croatia’s state seismology service said there had been 30 aftershocks.

The government said it would estimate the damage in the coming weeks and ask the European Commission for aid.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake measured 5.4, while the European Mediterranean Seismological Centre (EMSC) also reported 5.3 magnitude, followed by another 5.1 magnitude earthquake.

(Reporting by Subrat Patnaik in Bengaluru, Igor Ilic in Zagreb and Maja Zuvela in Sarajevo; Editing by Sam Holmes/Christopher Cushing/Susan Fenton/Philippa Fletcher)

UK conducts random coronavirus testing as part of early warning plan

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain has started random tests for coronavirus on flu patients to have an early warning system in place in case the outbreak becomes more widespread, a senior health official said.

Britain has so far had 13 cases of coronavirus. An outbreak in northern Italy worsened on Wednesday, and the illness has spread to Spain, Austria, Switzerland, Croatia and France via visitors who were recently in northern Italy.

“We’re heightening our vigilance because of the apparent spread of the virus in countries outside mainland China,” Public Health England’s medical director, Paul Cosford, told BBC radio on Wednesday.

The disease is believed to have originated in a market selling wildlife in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year and has infected about 80,000 people and killed more than 2,700, the vast majority in China.

British health minister Matt Hancock said the government had plans in place in case the virus becomes a pandemic.

In Britain, random tests for the virus will be carried out at 11 hospitals and 100 general medical offices on people who have flu symptoms including a cough, plus shortness of breath and a fever.

“This testing will tell us whether there’s evidence of infection more widespread than we think there is. We don’t think there is at the moment,” PHE’s Cosford said.

“The other thing it will do is, if we do get to the position of more widespread infection across the country, then it will give us early warning that that’s happening,” he added.

Hancock told parliament the government expected more cases in Britain and was planning to introduce home testing.

“We are taking all necessary measures to minimise the risk to the public,” he said. “The public can be assured that we have a clear plan to contain, delay, research and mitigate this virus.”

Media have reported several schools have closed or sent pupils home after returning from trips to northern Italy during last week’s school holiday. Hancock said there was no need for schools to close or other students or staff to be sent home.

(Reporting by Sarah Young and Kylie MacLellan; Editing by William Schomberg and Stephen Addison)

Slovenia erects more border fence to curb migrant inflow

Workers installs a fence on the bank of the Kolpa river in Preloka, Slovenia, August 22, 2019. REUTERS/Srdjan Zivulovic

PRELOKA, Slovenia (Reuters) – Slovenia has begun work on an additional stretch of fence along its southern border with Croatia with which it aims to keep out a rising number of migrants entering the country illegally.

Slovenia’s police registered 7,415 illegal migrants in the first seven months of this year, a jump of 56% compared to the same period of 2018 as more people are trying to reach wealthy Western states via the Balkans.

Last month the government signed a contract with a Serbian firm Legi-SGS to put up 40 kilometers (25 miles) of fence on the border with Croatia. Once that section is completed, the total length of fence will be 219 kilometers and cover almost a third of the Slovenian border with Croatia. Slovenia’s total land and sea border is 1,370 km long.

“The fence will be erected temporarily in the areas where it is necessary to prevent illegal crossings of the state border and ensure the safety of people and their property,” said Irena Likar, a spokeswoman of the Interior Ministry.

A Reuters photographer near the village of Preloka in southern Slovenia saw construction work underway at the site.

Likar said the exact time plan and location of for the erection of the fence would not be made public.

Slovenia first began constructing a border fence during the refugee crisis of 2015 when in a period of six months about half a million illegal migrants passed through the country.

This new stretch of fence is around 2.5 meters high and is being erected on the banks of the river Kolpa which runs between Slovenia and Croatia.

The government’s immigration policy has met with little opposition in Slovenia, although some civil society groups are against the wire fence.

Most illegal migrants come from Pakistan, Algeria, Afghanistan, Morocco and Bangladesh. Only a fraction seek asylum in Slovenia, with most continuing on to neighboring Italy and Austria.

Last month Italian and Slovenian police started joint border patrols in order to curb the flow of illegal migrants.

(Reporting by Srdjan Zivulovic and Marja Novak; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Migrants stranded in Serbia march toward Croatian border

Refugees and migrants cross the Old Sava Bridge heading in the direction of the Croatian border, in Belgrade, Serbia

BELGRADE (Reuters) – Some 150 migrants, trapped in Serbia, set out on Friday to walk about 125 km (80 miles) to the Croatian border, demanding free and secure passage toward Western Europe, police said.

Police are following the group along the highway connecting Belgrade and the border.

“We started marching toward the border with Croatia. The camps are full, we sleep in parks, we cannot stand it any more,” said a migrant from Pakistan who gave his name as Habib.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, around 6,400 migrants from countries such as Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan are currently registered in Serbia, while local non-governmental organizations say their number is close to 10,000. They mostly arrive from Bulgaria and Macedonia.

Last month another group tried a similar protest march toward the Hungarian border, but eventually decided to return to Belgrade. Hungary has practically sealed its borders to migrants.

Last year a total of 579,518 migrants and asylum seekers were registered arriving in Serbia, out of more than a million who made it to Europe by land and sea.

A deal between Turkey and the European Union, struck in March, has largely shut off the flow of people reaching Greece and the Balkans, but Austria kicked off consultations with Balkan states this month to see what measures can be taken if the deal collapses.

(Reporting by Marko Djurica, writing by Igor Ilic in Zagreb; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

Russia fails to win re-election to U.N. Human Rights Council

A still image, taken from video footage and released by Russia's Defence Ministry on August 18, 2016, shows a Russian Sukhoi Su-34 fighter-bomber based at Iran's Hamadan air base dropping off bombs in the Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor. Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation/

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Russia failed to win re-election to the United Nations Human Rights Council on Friday, beaten out by Hungary and Croatia, following lobbying by rights groups against Moscow’s candidacy because of its military support for the Syrian government.

In a secret ballot by the 193-member U.N. General Assembly, Hungary received 144 votes, followed by Croatia with 114 votes and Russia with 112 votes. Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Moscow had faced good competition.

“It was a very close vote,” Churkin told reporters. “Croatia, Hungary – they are fortunate because of their size they are not as exposed to the winds of international diplomacy;  Russia is quite exposed.”

“We have been there a number of years, I’m sure next time we’re going to get in,” he said.

Russian air power has been backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the country’s nearly six-year war. A recent offensive to capture eastern Aleppo – the rebel-held half of Syria’s largest city – has sparked international outrage.

Russia’s three-year term on the 47-member Geneva-based Human Rights Council will finish on Dec. 31. It had been competing for a second three-year term. Council members cannot serve more than two consecutive terms.

“U.N. member states have sent a strong message to the Kremlin about its support for a regime that has perpetrated so much atrocity in Syria,” said Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director at Human Rights Watch.

The United States, Egypt, Rwanda, Tunisia, Iraq and Japan were elected to the body, while Saudi Arabia, China, South Africa and Britain won a second terms. Their candidacies were uncontested but needed to win a majority vote. In the other competitive slate, Cuba and Brazil beat out Guatemala.

“The re-election of China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia – regimes which systematically violate the human rights of their citizens – casts a shadow upon the reputation of the United Nations,” said U.N. Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer.”

A Saudi Arabia-led military campaign in Yemen has been criticized for killing civilians. U.N. sanctions monitors have accused the Saudi-led coalition, Houthi rebels and Yemen government troops of violating international humanitarian and human rights laws.

(Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Macedonia declares emergency after 21 die in flash floods

A wrecked car is seen after heavy floods in Cento

By Kole Casule

SKOPJE (Reuters) – Macedonia declared a state of emergency in its capital Skopje and neighboring districts on Sunday, a day after at least 21 people were killed in flash floods caused by a storm.

Torrential rains flooded homes, swept away a section of the ring road around Skopje and wrecked cars late on Saturday evening. Northern suburbs of the capital were particularly hard hit, though the city center also suffered flash floods.

Children were among those killed, a police spokesman said, adding that searches were continuing for six people who have been reported missing.

Macedonia, a small former Yugoslav republic of about two million people, has declared Monday a day of national mourning.

“This is a catastrophe of unprecedented magnitude,” Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Todorov told reporters.

Special police forces and trucks loaded with drinking water were sent to the worst affected areas, where there also have been some electricity outages and where scattered debris of furniture swept away from houses could be seen on the streets, a Reuters reporter said.

The rain had stopped by Sunday morning and water levels were receding, though there was some more rain on Sunday evening in Skopje. There were no reports of further flash flooding.

European Union Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said on Twitter that the EU stood ready to help Macedonia, which is a candidate to join the bloc.

Further north in the Balkans, in Croatia, heavy winds caused disruptions on some roads, including the closure of the highway linking the capital Zagreb to southern coast for lorries and buses, local media said.

(Additional reporting by Igor Ilic in Zagreb; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Thousands of Refugees Stranded across Balkans

Thousands of refugees, including children and babies, were left stranded at borders in the Balkans as Croatia and Slovenia and other countries began tightening border control and limiting the number of refugees allowed in their countries.

According to CNN, approximately 10,000 refugees were left stranded in Serbia due to Hungary closing down two of its borders – including its border with Serbia. Many of the refugees have been bottlenecked on Serbia’s western border where they are trying to enter Croatia, then travel to Slovenia. Slovenia recently announced they would only accept 2,500 refugees a day, but their neighbor, Croatia, is letting more than 5,000 travel through to Slovenia, despite Slovenia’s limitations. Slovenia borders Croatia, Austria, Hungary, and Italy.

“Croatia is ignoring our pleas, our plans,” Bostjan Sefic, state secretary at Slovenia’s interior ministry, told a news conference, saying the army would be called in to help if such a rate continued.

Croatia is also considering tighter restrictions after more than 200,000 refugees crossed their border over the past month. Government officials are considering raising a barrier or fence across the border.

“I would like to avoid the situation where we have to put any kind of physical barrier on the border, but I have always requested from our government a tight control of the border… I don’t know about the fence, I don’t exclude it as a possibility in the future,” said Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic.

U.N. refugee agencies have reported another concern: they are running out of supplies. As colder weather approaches, doctors are worried that they will not have the supplies to treat children and weaker adults who suffer from hypothermia. Aid agencies and charities continue to donate to the cause, but have been struggling to keep up with the large number of refugees fleeing war in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

“We don’t have a chance to treat, we don’t have the actual medicine to be given out to them, we don’t have any more rain coats,” Dr. Ramiz Momeni, London-based founder of the Humanitas Charity, told Sky News.

“There is a lack of food, lack of blankets, we are missing everything,” UN Refugee Agency spokeswoman Melita Sunjic also told the media outlet.

Since the crisis began, more than 615,000 refugees have arrived in Europe via sea so far this year. In 2014 there were 626,000 asylum applications according to Eurostat figures. Germany alone is expected to see up to 800,000 asylum seekers and refugees this year.

Croatia Closes Borders to Migrants

Croatia said Friday they are closing their borders to migrants after a wave of people overwhelmed their border personnel.

Croatian officials said all migrants will be forced to move through the nation to other countries and will not be allowed to remain on Croatian soil.  The government said they will provide food and water to those who arrive but then immediately will make them leave.

“We cannot register and accommodate these people any longer,” Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic told a news conference.  “They will get food, water and medical help, and then they can move on. The European Union must know that Croatia will not become a migrant ‘hotspot’. We have hearts, but we also have heads.”

Over 11,000 migrants flooded into the country since Hungary closed their border with Serbia on Wednesday.

Many of the migrants are telling western media they have no choice but to continue.

“Returning back to our country is impossible, because we have no financial means or the moral strength to go back home,” Abu Mohamed who fled Idlib in Syria, told The Associated Press.

“We are coming with our modest Islamic perspectives,” he added. “Terrorism remains back home, terrorism is not coming with us. We were the victims and oppressed back home in our societies.”

Croatia Dissolves All Debt For Poor

Poor residents of Croatia is going to breathe easier on Monday when the government cancels all debt.

The move by the government is aimed to “kickstart the nation’s economy”

Any citizen earning under $184 U.S. dollars a month, rent their property and unable to pay off debts will get up to $5,146 wiped away.  Power companies, loan brokers, banks and phone companies are part of the businesses that will have to swallow the losses.

“We are doing all we can to make people’s lives easier in this protracted and strenuous crisis and give them a chance for a fresh start,” Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said in a press conference.

Officials estimate that 60,000 Croatians will be receiving debt relief under the plan.  The action will cost creditors as much as $309 million U.S. according to estimates.

Croatia has been suffering from a massive recession for seven years.