Serbia’s police detain over 4,500 migrants, seize weapons

BELGRADE (Reuters) – Serbian police have detained thousands of migrants in two weeks of daily raids in northern and eastern areas of the Balkan country, as part of a nationwide operation launched two weeks ago after a shootout in which three migrants died.

In a statement on Wednesday, the Serbian Ministry of Interior said that since Oct. 27 they had rounded up some 4,500 migrants in the municipalities of Subotica, Sombor and Kikinda near the Hungarian border in the north and near the town of Pirot in the southeast, near the border with Bulgaria and transferred them to government-controlled camps.

It said that eight smugglers and 119 people have been arrested on charges including human trafficking and illegal possession of weapons and drugs.   

The police also seized five assault rifles, five handguns, over 1,500 rounds of various calibers, hundreds of foreign passports and searched more than 81,000 cars and over 300 homes.

“The Ministry of Internal Affairs will persevere until the problem of irregular migration is solved and the human smuggling chain is severed,” the statement said.

The ministry did not say where the migrants had come from but most of those using the Balkan route into the EU, are typically from the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and north Africa. The route runs via Turkey, Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Serbia.

Many migrants cross borders with the help of elaborate networks of smugglers who are sometimes armed, and shootouts between criminal groups are frequent. 

Last month three migrants died in a shootout near Serbia’s border with Hungary, a route increasingly used by people smugglers for entering the European Union.

“These are organised gangs that are not made up only of criminal members of the migrant population, but also … our citizens, They transfer people across borders and take huge money,” Rados Djurovic, director of the Center for Protection and Assistance to Asylum Seekers told regional RTV TV.

Serbia, a candidate to join European Union conducts joint border patrols with EU members Hungary and Austria. Belgrade has pledged to align its visa policies with those of the EU to help stem the flow of illegal migrants westward. 

(Aleksandar Vasovic; editing by Barbara Lewis)