Czech Republic asks other countries for help with COVID-19 patients: health ministry

PRAGUE (Reuters) – The Czech Republic has asked Germany, Switzerland and Poland to take in dozens of COVID-19 patients as the situation in its own hospitals has reached a critical point, Prague’s Health Ministry said on Friday.

The country of 10.7 million has been one of the hardest-hit globally in recent weeks as many regional hospitals, overwhelmed by the inflow of coronavirus patients, had to transfer them elsewhere, in some cases taking them hundreds of miles away.

“The large number of newly infected patients has intensified pressure on the healthcare system, and the number of patients requiring hospitalization is growing,” the ministry said.

As of Friday morning, there were 8,153 COVID patients hospitalized, including 1,735 requiring intensive care, Health Ministry data showed.

“In some regions, the hospitals have exhausted their capacity and they are no longer able to provide appropriate care or to accept new patients without help from others,” Health Minister Jan Blatny said in the release.

Across the country, 13% of the overall intensive care capacity was available, while in the capital Prague, the free capacity was at 5%.

Neighboring Slovakia transferred its first coronavirus patients abroad this week as its hospitals filled with COVID-19 patients.

(Reporting by Robert Muller; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Hugh Lawson)

No work without COVID test in central Slovakia as hospitals overflow worst-hit region

PRAGUE (Reuters) – Slovaks in the country’s central Nitra region would not be allowed to work unless they have tested negative for the coronavirus as the area’s main hospital was inundated with COVID patients and deaths were high, officials said on Tuesday.

The central European country of 5.5 million has seen record numbers of new cases and hospitalizations in the past days, with 3,146 people in hospitals as of Monday, despite a partial national lockdown.

People from the Nitra region of about 160,000 would not be allowed to attend work as of Monday without a negative test, Prime Minister Igor Matovic told a televised news conference from the central Slovak city.

“The situation in Nitra is so dramatic that only voluntary testing would not be enough,” Matovic said. “This is a better way to protect workers, companies, the health of the people.”

Slovakia has limited movement of people to necessary work commutes, shopping and nature walks within their district, but new cases have remained high, with around 10,000 found on Monday through PCR and antigen testing.

Jaguar Land Rover is the biggest employer in the Nitra region with around 2,800 workers.

Milan Dubaj, head of the Nitra University Hospital, said more than 10 people were dying in his COVID-19 ward every day, and called the situation “desperate”.

“We have around 200 patients, including up to 20 on ventilators, and over 10 die daily,” he told the news conference.

“I am at loss how to describe the psychological and physical exhaustion of our staff … In recent days, our urologist died, a COVID urgent care worker died and at 2 p.m. today, an internist died,” he said.

Slovakia has so far recorded around 2,600 deaths caused by COIVD-19, and over 600 more classified as “with COVID”.

(Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Vienna gunman rampaged alone, intelligence was fumbled: Austrian minister

By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) – Large quantities of mobile phone footage have confirmed that the jihadist who killed four people in a rampage in Vienna on Monday was the only gunman, but Austria fumbled intelligence on him, Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said on Wednesday.

Austria arrested 14 people aged 18 to 28 on Tuesday in connection with the attack and is investigating them on suspicion of belonging to a terrorist organization, he said. But it would also have to investigate its own actions, he added.

“Before the terror attack began, according to the information currently available, some things also went wrong,” Nehammer told a news conference.

In July, neighboring Slovakia’s intelligence service had handed over information suggesting the attacker had tried and failed to buy ammunition there, Nehammer and a top ministry official, Director General for Public Security Franz Ruf, said.

“In the next steps evidently something went wrong here with communications,” said Nehammer, who called for the formation of an independent commission to examine the errors made.

After receiving the tip-off from Slovakia, Austria’s domestic intelligence agencies at the federal and provincial level made the necessary checks and sent questions back to Bratislava, Ruf said.

“It’s up to the commission to clarify whether the process went optimally and in line with the law,” he said when pressed on what had gone wrong.

The gunman, who was shot dead by police within minutes of opening fire on crowded bars on Monday evening, was a 20-year-old with dual Austrian and North Macedonian citizenship. Born and raised in Vienna, he had already been convicted of trying to reach Syria to join Islamic State and had spent time in jail.

All of those arrested in Austria have a “migration background”, Nehammer said. Vienna police chief Gerhard Puerstl added that some were dual citizens of Bangladesh, North Macedonia, Turkey or Russia.

Neutral Austria, part of the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS formed in 2014, has for years seen jihadist attacks as its biggest security threat and warned of the danger posed by foreign fighters returning from Iraq or Syria or their admirers.

At the end of 2018, the authorities knew of 320 people from Austria who were actively involved or had wanted to participate in jihad in Syria and Iraq. Of these, around 58 people were thought to have died in the region and 93 to have returned to Austria. Another 62 were prevented from leaving the country.

Nehammer repeated criticism of a deradicalization program, saying the gunman had “perfectly” fooled the program to reintegrate jihadists into society.

LONE GUNMAN

Members of the public had handed in more than 20,000 mobile phone videos that the authorities analyzed before coming to the conclusion that there was only one gunman, Nehammer said, putting an end to lingering confusion on that point.

Switzerland has also arrested two men in connection with the attack. Its justice minister said the two were “obviously friends” with the gunman.

Ruf said Austria was in contact with Switzerland and another country that he declined to identify over the investigation.

North Macedonia said on Tuesday three people were somehow involved in the attack and all had dual Austrian and North Macedonian citizenship. It identified them only by initials.

Monday’s attack drew international expressions of support for Austria, which had been spared the deadly militant attacks that have hit other European countries in the past decade.

President Emmanuel Macron of France, which has suffered two deadly attacks recently amid Islamist anger over the publication of satirical caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad, will visit Vienna next Monday, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s office said.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Additional reporting by Michael Shields; Writing by Michael Shields and Francois Murphy; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Gareth Jones)

Tens of thousands march for ban on abortions in Slovakia

BRATISLAVA (Reuters) – Tens of thousands marched in Slovakia’s capital on Sunday calling for a total ban on abortions in the predominantly Catholic central European country.

Abortion laws in Slovakia are relatively liberal compared to those in countries like Poland or Malta, which have among the strictest laws in the European Union and often allow them only in cases like rape.

In Slovakia, on-demand abortions are legal up until 12 weeks of pregnancy while abortions for health reasons are allowed until 24 weeks.

Conservative and far-right lawmakers want to allow them only to up to six or eight weeks of pregnancy or ban them outright, and parliament starts debating draft laws to restrict abortions this month.

It is unclear if the proposals will become law since the ruling Smer – a leftist, socially conservative party – and junior center-right Slovak National Party in the government, have not said whether they will back any of them.

Abortions have fallen in the country of 5.4 million to 6,000 last year, from almost 11,000 a decade ago. A Focus agency opinion poll this month found 55.5% of people disagreed with restricting abortions while 34.6% supported the move.

Protesters carrying signs saying “A human is human regardless of size” and “Who kills an unborn child kills the future of the nation” marched in the capital on Sunday demanding a total ban on abortions, including in cases of severe birth defects or rape.

“The life of every human is invaluable, therefore it needs to be protected from conception until natural death,” one of the protest organizers, backed by the Catholic church, said on stage.

The organizers estimated turnout at the protest at about 50,000.

The ruling Smer party has led Slovakia nearly non-stop since 2006 and has built its base by lifting social benefits amid years of economic growth and backing conservative issues.

Ahead of an election next year, the party pledged to back legislation to ban gay marriage and adoption by same-sex couples. Slovak law does not recognize same-sex civil unions.

The most recent official census in 2011 found 62% of the country identify as Roman Catholics, while 6% are Protestants.

(Reporting By Tatiana Jancarikova, editing by Deepa Babington)

Top EU court rules eastern states must take refugees

FILE PHOTO: Migrants face Hungarian police in the main Eastern Railway station in Budapest, Hungary, September 1, 2015. REUTE/Laszlo Balogh/File Photo

By Michele Sinner

LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) – The European Union’s highest court ruled on Wednesday that EU states must take in a share of refugees who reach Europe, dismissing complaints by Slovakia and Hungary and reigniting an angry row between east and west.

The government of Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Victor Orban was characteristically blunt about the European Court of Justice, calling its decision to uphold an EU policy drafted in the heat of the 2015 migrant crisis as “appalling” and denouncing a political “rape of European law and values”.

However, Germany, which took in the bulk of over a million people who landed in Greece two years ago, said it expected the formerly communist states, including Poland, which supported the complaint, to now fall in line and accept the ruling that the Union is entitled to impose quotas of asylum-seekers on states.

The Luxembourg-based ECJ rejected the Hungarian and Slovak claims that it was illegal for Brussels to order them to take in hundreds of mainly Muslim refugees from Syria, which they said threatened the security and stability of their societies.

“The mechanism actually contributes to enabling Greece and Italy to deal with the impact of the 2015 migration crisis and is proportionate,” the court said in statement.

Italy, now the main destination for migrants risking the Mediterranean crossing, is prominent among wealthier, Western states in threatening their eastern neighbors with cutting their EU subsidies if they do show solidarity by taking people in. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said he would still not take a quota but was ready to help in other ways.

A sharp decline in numbers arriving, partly a result of the effective closure of routes from Turkey to Greece and from Greece into Macedonia and toward northern Europe, has taken some of the heat out of the arguments and diplomats expect the EU executive, the European Commission, to propose new ideas.

“We can expect all European partners to stick to the ruling and implement the agreements without delay,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said in a statement.

The eurosceptic AfD party, which expects to win seats in the Berlin parliament at a national election on Sept. 24, criticized the court ruling as proof that unelected “Brussels bureaucrats” were imposing on states — though in fact the Commission’s quota policy was backed by a majority of the member state governments.

EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos tweeted: “Time to work in unity and implement solidarity in full.”

“RAPE OF LAW AND VALUES”

Calling the court ruling “appalling and irresponsible”, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said: “This decision jeopardizes the security and future of all of Europe.

“Politics has raped European law and values.”

EU asylum law states that people arriving in the bloc should claim asylum in the first member state they enter but that rule was exposed as unworkable when hundreds of thousands arrived in economically struggling Greece and Italy. Arguments over what to do struck at the heart of the Union’s cooperation and chaotic movements of people saw member states try to seal borders with each other, dealing a heavy blow to a key EU achievement.

The migration crisis came at a time of deep soul-searching about the Union’s future and some questioned its survival.

However, a drop in migrant numbers, to which cooperation on tightening the common external border has contributed, as well as an economic upturn and election defeats for anti-immigrant parties has steadied nerves in Brussels, despite the difficulty posed by Britain’s vote last year to exit the bloc.

The program provided for the relocation of up to 120,000 people from Greece and Italy, but less than 30,000 have so far been moved, partly through difficulties in identifying suitable candidates. A further program for resettling people directly from outside the EU has also struggled to hit targets.

Hungary and Poland have refused to host a single person under the 2015 sharing scheme, while Slovakia and the Czech Republic have each taken in only a dozen or so.

While the EU has sought in vain to come up with a compromise, the court ruling may just force Brussels’ hand.

It is a delicate balancing act as putting such a thorny issue to a vote, and possibly passing a migration reform despite opposition from several states, would cause even more bad blood.

“If we push it through above their heads, they will use it in their anti-EU propaganda at home,” another EU diplomat said of Poland and Hungary, where the nationalist-minded governments are embroiled in disputes with Brussels over democratic rules.

“But the arrivals are low, we have it more or less under control, so we have to get back to the solidarity mechanism.”

(Additional reporting and writing in Brussels by Gabriela Baczynska and Alastair Macdonald; editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Angus MacSwan)

EU proposes scheme to share out asylum seekers

Migrants line up to receive personal hygiene goods distributed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), outside the main building of the disused Hellenikon airport

By Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Commission proposed a system to distribute asylum seekers across the EU on Wednesday that aims to ease the load on states like Greece and Italy but drew immediate condemnation from governments in Eastern Europe.

The European Union executive published legislative proposals to reform the so-called Dublin system of EU asylum rules that includes a “fairness mechanism” under which each of the 28 states would be assigned a percentage quota of all asylum seekers in the bloc that it would be expected to handle.

The quotas would reflect national population and wealth and, if a country found itself handling 50 percent more than its due share, it could relocate people elsewhere in the bloc. States could refuse to take people for a year — but only if they paid another country 250,000 euros per person to accommodate them.

“There is no a la carte solidarity in this Union,” First Vice President Frans Timmermans told reporters. “This is a way to be able to show solidarity in a situation where … you are not able to take the refugees which were allocated to you.”

But at a meeting in Prague, ministers from Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic all repeated their opposition to the idea of relocation: “It makes no sense, it violates EU member states’ rights,” Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak told reporters. Hungary’s foreign minister called it “blackmail”.

A two-year emergency relocation scheme was set up last year as Greece struggled to cope with the chaotic arrival of nearly a million people, many of them Syrian refugees, most of whom reached Germany. It was agreed over the furious objections of several central and eastern states, two of whom, Hungary and Slovakia, are contesting the quota system in the EU courts.

In fact, only 1,441 asylum seekers have been relocated out of the 160,000 allowed for under the current temporary scheme.

The proposals, which also include measures to speed up the process of handling asylum claims and tighter controls on the movements of migrants themselves, need backing from governments and the European Parliament — a process that officials expect to be an uphill battle and involve many amendments.

Germany, the bloc’s main paymaster and destination for the bulk of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, has pushed hard for a permanent relocation system and has voiced frustration with the refusal of governments in the east who benefit the most from EU subsidies to take in asylum seekers.

Poland, Hungary and other formerly communist states say immigration, especially from the Muslim cultures of the Middle East, would disrupt their homogeneous societies. Governments also object to paying as an alternative to taking people in.

A similar proposal last year to set a payment of 0.002 percent of GDP was not taken up in the temporary scheme. The Commission did not issue its quota figures. Last year’s tables gave Germany a roughly 18 percent share, France 14 percent, Poland 5.6 percent and Hungary 1.8 percent.

“CONTROVERSIAL”

Any reform of the system, from which Britain, Ireland and Denmark are exempt, will require majority approval by EU governments. But senior officials say EU leaders will try to avoid forcing a deal through over strong minority objections, as happened with the temporary relocation scheme last September.

Even the authors of the proposal admit it is “sensitive” and “controversial” but hope it bridges diverging expectations from member states, EU sources said.

Splits between east and west, north and south over migration have posed one of the biggest challenges the European Union has faced and leaders’ main hope is that a new deal with Turkey to hold down the numbers arriving can take the heat out of a debate that has seen nationalist parties surge in polls across Europe.

Italy has led a push for reform of a Dublin system that gives responsibility for handling asylum claims to the first country migrants arrive in. The Commission last month floated a possibility of scrapping that in favor of a central EU system but has now favored the relocation system.

Chaotic movements of migrants, including many allowed by Italy and Greece to head north without being registered, have thrown the bloc’s cherished Schengen system of open borders into disarray, with governments putting up new barriers to travel.

EU officials hope that the deal with Turkey, from where the bulk of 1.3 million people reached Europe last year, will stem the flow and allow the Union to regain control of its external borders and hence restore order in the Schengen area.

Also on Wednesday, Brussels was expected to confirm a lifting of visa restrictions on Turks as part of the deal with Ankara. The EU is offering to take in refugees directly from Turkey, which hosts 2.7 million Syrians, and such resettlements would be taken into account in countries’ quotas for relocation.

(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)