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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Greece's Tsipras win austerity vote after snap poll

October 17, 2015

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece's parliament has approved a new round of austerity measures — the first major test for leftwing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras after snap general elections last month, triggered by dissent over Greece's latest bailout deal.

Lawmakers early Saturday voted 154-140 in favor of the bill required for a 2 billion-euro ($2.3 billion) loan installment. It is part of Greece's third major bailout agreement with eurozone lenders, worth 86 billion euros ($98 billion) over three years.

"There are no new measures here. There are difficult measures that we all knew about," Tsipras said. That July bailout deal saw Tsipras abandon a pledge to bring an end to austerity and alienated a large section of his radical left Syriza party.

The split forced him to call an early election held on Sept. 20. Syriza came out on top and was able to return to government with the small right-wing Independent Greeks. Late Friday, several thousand protesters, many from a Communist backed labor union, joined a peaceful anti-austerity rally outside parliament before the vote. Several prominent politicians who were former Tsipras allies joined the protest.

"We can't accept a new crime at the people's expense. They're trying to destroy the welfare state. Everyone must fight it," protester Eleni Menegaki said. The new cost-cutting measures include penalizing early retirement and expanding a widely hated property tax.

Tsipras' Cabinet is now racing to overhaul its troubled pension system and impose a raft of new cutbacks. The measures are required before crucial funds can be injected into the country's ailing banks.

The government also wants relief from its debt, which is set to exceed 190 percent of Greece's annual national income next year. Eurozone lenders have promised discussions but only if certain economic measures are met.

The cost of the austerity measures, alongside with the ongoing controls on money transfers in the country, are expected to keep Greece in recession over the next two years and unemployment above 25 percent.

Tsipras faced little dissent from his party or right-wing coalition partners during a parliamentary debate on the bill that started at committee level Tuesday. All six opposition parties voted against the bill.

Now in Germany, a Syrian doctor wrestles with war memories

October 22, 2015

SAARLOUIS, Germany (AP) — By any measure, Dr. Osman al-Haj Osman has been a success among the tens of thousands of Syrians who have streamed into Europe. He received asylum in Germany. He's taking lessons in the language, is getting help from the state in finding a job and was able to bring wife and kids to join him.

But the 33-year-old surgeon is haunted by doubt over whether he made the right decision for his family in immigrating to such a different world. He's also burdened by memories of his country's civil war and the way in which his two young sons were branded by its horrors before they fled his home city of Aleppo in northern Syria more than a year ago.

"Everything around me, I feel, is temporary. Until now, I find it really hard to write my home address as anywhere other than Aleppo," he said on a rainy afternoon in September in Saarlouis. In 2012, Osman was the senior doctor at a front-line hospital in a rebel-held district of Aleppo under siege by Syrian government forces. Round the clock, casualties flowed into the Dar al-Shifaa hospital, civilians and rebels, wounded or dying in the intense urban warfare and heavy bombardment by Syrian forces.

Looking constantly exhausted, Osman hardly ever took off his often blood-stained, green surgery scrubs as he and the overwhelmed staff tried to deal with the wounded. "I have to make a choice between a child with a 10 percent chance of survival and one with a 25 percent chance," he told the AP at the time. When a wounded rebel died, often his comrades would burst into rage at the staff, convinced more could have been done.

Osman's wife and two young sons were living in the hospital with him. His older boy, Omar, who was 4 at the time, would walk among the maimed or dying, passing the pools of blood on the floor and the occasional severed limb. He would play in the hospital hallways or make joke announcements on the hospital PA system.

Now looking back, Osman said he regrets bringing his family into the hospital. He'd wanted his wife and children near him, but he said he hadn't realized until it was too late the trauma he had inflicted on his children. The boys now draw pictures of tanks, warplanes, wounded people and wrecked houses.

Omar still has nightmares. Osman recalled running errands in the streets of Aleppo with the boy, who, whenever a plane passed overhead, would ask his father if it was about to bomb them. Osman recalled another question Omar asked him once. "Papa, who created the world? The person who created it, can't he see what's happening to it?"

Dar al-Shifaa closed in November 2012 after a government airstrike hit a neighboring building, heavily damaging the hospital and killing four inside. Osman eventually worked at a clinic with Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, trying to lay low as Islamic militants gained increasing power in the rebel-held districts of the city.

In August 2013, the militants arrested him, and he was questioned by an Egyptian militant who told him that MSF was headed by a "kafir," an infidel. Later in detention, he heard the Egyptian talking to other militants, telling them they would eventually have to kill him — but not now, they had other priorities. So they let him go. He left MSF three months later.

Finally in early 2014, he fled with his family to Turkey. After months of looking for work, he decided to head for Europe. His wife had resisted the idea of coming to Germany. Still, she and their kids — Omar, now 7 years old, and Rushd, 5 — arrived in Turkey on Tuesday.

He shares her doubts about life in a different culture. "Many young Syrians abandon their identity soon after they arrive here," he said, speaking as he was reunited with Mohammed al-Haj, a 26-year-old Syrian who had volunteered in the same Aleppo hospital. Al-Haj had just arrived after a 14-day journey from Turkey across Greece and the Balkans, sneaking across borders.

Now living in the state of Saarland, Osman has applied to two hospitals for jobs. He takes German lessons in the town of Saarlouis, not far from the town he lives in. With asylum, he gets a stipend of around 1,000 Euros ($1,100) a month.

"The situation in Germany is now good for Syrians," he said. "But there are no guarantees it will continue to be the same. What if a terror attack happens and is blamed on Muslims? I must have a Plan B."

Osman believes the danger of Islamic terror on German soil doesn't necessarily stem from the possibility militants have slipped in with the refugees streaming into Europe. He said militant ideas are already here in Germany.

He recounted an incident in the nearby town of Merzig in July when a Syrian man harshly berated a 12-year-old Syrian boy for wearing shorts in the mosque, accusing him of disrespecting the place, leading to a fight with others trying to calm the man down.

Regardless of what may happen, Osman is filled with gratitude for Germany. "I have a debt to repay to Germany, the country that helped me when no one else did," he said. The stipend, he said, he'll pay back quickly through income tax once he starts working. "But I can never repay the moral debt I owe to Germany."

As Rio nears, gymnastics' Biles is ready to take charge

October 22, 2015

CONROE, Texas (AP) — The little girl had to be in charge. It was her way of taking control. Of protecting her younger sister. Of trying to find order during a time when it was in short supply.

So Simone Biles anointed herself the boss, ordering around little sis Adria in their new home to give her something familiar to hold onto. The girls, Adria still in diapers, were living with their grandparents in Texas while their mother struggled with addiction back in Ohio.

"She thought she was a little mom in the house," Nellie Biles said. "She made decisions for herself and her sister because this was all they knew." Nellie Biles and husband Ron adopted the girls 15 years ago, providing the structure they needed. They also unknowingly set the foundation that helped produce what could be the greatest gymnast of her generation.

Stardom, the kind that truly changes a life, awaits Simone Biles. The two-time defending world all-around champion will go for a three-peat at the 2015 championships Glasgow, Scotland starting this weekend. The ever-growing speck in the distance that is the 2016 Summer Olympics creeps closer by the day.

"It's a little bit scary," Biles said. Yet hardly intimidating. Biles has almost everything she'll need for that journey. The infectious smile that already has sponsors writing checks. The accessible personality and the soaring routines that NBC's high definition cameras will beam into millions of homes next summer. The talent to make her the next in a long line of American gymnastics royalty that stretches from Gabby to Nastia to Carly to Mary Lou.

Most important: the support of a home life that strips away the hype and her own towering expectations and allows her to be just another 18-year-old. "I want her to be normal," Nellie Biles said. "I want her to be able to say, 'I'm tired, I don't want to be bothered."

At home, she's just a teenager who requested a belly ring after her first world title in 2013. The daughter whose chores include feeding the family's four dogs. The girl who better be at her seat for Sunday dinner regardless of whatever time zone she may have been in the day before.

It's a contrast to those difficult early days. Simone Biles was born in Columbus, Ohio on March 14, 1997. Her mother, Shanon Biles, struggled off and on with drugs and alcohol. At one point, Ron Biles received a phone call from a social worker telling him all four of his grandchildren were in foster care. He flew to Ohio and brought all of them to Texas only to have them head back with their mother after less than a year. It didn't last.

His daughter's parental rights were terminated shortly thereafter, with Ron Biles taking in Simone and Adria while his older sister adopted Shanon's two other children. It wasn't exactly the life Nellie Biles had planned. When the girls arrived for good in late 2000, she was preparing to be an empty nester, with two sons getting ready for college. Now she had a 3-year-old old and a toddler. There were tears and prayer and the kind of soul searching she wasn't expecting at 50 approached.

"It was a hard transition for me because they didn't have any connection to me and I didn't have any connection to them," Nellie Biles said. Two years of counseling followed, Ron and Nellie figuring out how to make it work. And it did. Maybe that's why the Biles have never felt the need to talk about it.

Even Simone's coach, Aimee Boorman, didn't know. Biles walked into Bannon's Gymnastix on a daycare field trip and walked out with a bug that transformed into something far more than flipping around. But the Biles didn't share their backstory until years later. They weren't keeping a secret, exactly. It just didn't seem important.

Though Simone remains in contact with Shanon Biles, she is quick to correct anyone that calls Shanon her mother. Shanon Biles is her biological mother. Nellie Biles is Mom. Shanon Biles made the drive from Ohio to watch Simone win her second straight national title at the 2014 U.S. Championships in Pittsburgh. It was nice weekend, but it wasn't the beginning of some kind fresh start. There will be no shot of Shanon Biles in the stands at Rio next summer.

"It's not something we bring her into because that would just blow it up and make it bigger," Simone said. "We're just trying to keep it small." As small as possible anyway. The drumbeat of celebrity is growing louder. There have been random knocks at the hotel room door by well-meaning but overzealous fans. There are major brands lining up to be associated with Biles, something she admits kind of "freaks me out." Mention to her she's still not verified on Twitter and she counters that she is on Instagram.

She verbally committed to UCLA, but then signed with an agent this summer. School will always be there. The opportunities that could pop up if she wins Olympic gold will not. Her parents offered advice but left the choice up to her, just as they did when she graduated from the eighth grade and had to pick between attending high school or being home schooled, which offered a flexible schedule more amenable to a world-class athlete who spends over 30 hours a week in the gym.

She chose to stay home, another important step in a journey that has brought her simultaneously to the cusp of adulthood and stardom. In a way, the Biles have all found a new identity through gymnastics. It is more than something their daughter does. The Biles are in the process of moving into a massive new space for their gym, a 50,000 square foot monolith that will include a taekwondo studio, a fitness center for parents, a study room for siblings and a training facility that will make the Karolyi Ranch — the home of USA Gymnastics located 45 minutes north — look antiquated.

Biles has no plans to one day join the family business. Her parents are fine with that, for now anyway. Like most 18-year-olds, Biles has no idea what she wants to be when she grows up. For now, she is the Olympics' Next Big Thing.

That's a lot of weight to carry on even her well-defined shoulders. Yet if the pressure gets to her, it hardly shows. Blame it on a sense of normalcy provided by a family cobbled together by circumstance and kept together by something far deeper. And blame it on a toughness that simply can't be taught.

"She's a survivor," Nellie Biles said. "She's been a survivor from a very, very young age."

German anti-Islam group's anniversary rally ends in violence

October 19, 2015

DRESDEN, Germany (AP) — Violence flared in the eastern city of Dresden after German anti-Islam group PEGIDA staged a rally to mark its first anniversary Monday.

Scuffles broke out when police tried to separate far-right protesters and counter-demonstrators attempting to block their path. Marko Laske, a spokesman for city police, said one person was hospitalized and a counter-demonstrator was detained.

Dresden authorities had warned ahead of the protest that they would crack down hard on violence, amid growing concern in Germany that PEGIDA — whose name stands for "Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West" — is becoming more radical.

German officials accuse the group of trying to capitalize on fears of immigration amid an unprecedented influx of refugees to the country over the past months. Many in the crowd held banners with slogans such as "refugees not welcome." Speakers who touched on the issue of migration elicited chants of "send them back."

Germany's top security official warned that groups such as PEGIDA were paving the way for violence, citing a sharp increase in attacks on refugee shelters this year and a weekend knife attack on a leading candidate to be mayor of Cologne. The attacker told police he acted out of anti-foreigner motives.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told public broadcaster ARD late Sunday that the domestic intelligence service was monitoring PEGIDA and called its leaders "hard far-right extremists." Monday's protest drew a bigger crowd than the previous week, when some 9,000 joined the rally. Organizers claimed almost 40,000 attended.

While some in the crowd wore clothing and symbols associated with neo-Nazi groups, many appeared older and claimed to be unaffiliated to any political movements. "What the government is doing, throwing open the doors to immigrants, is wrong. Most of them aren't true refugees, they're economic migrants," said one man, who would give only his first name, Eckart, claiming he could lose his government job for speaking out against immigrants.

Germany's vice chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, said the tone of debate in Germany was becoming increasingly raw because of PEGIDA and like-minded groups. "This is the soil from which ultimately individual crackpots and fanatics grow who consider themselves the executors of the people's will and then carry out knife attacks on political candidates such as in Cologne," Gabriel told a labor union conference in Frankfurt "They are the real arsonists in this country."

Germany has seen a surge in violence against migrants and asylum shelters in recent months. More than 520 incidents were recorded since the start of the year, compared with fewer than 200 in all of 2014.

Security officials have noted that only about a third of the suspects were known far right elements, while two-thirds were people who had no previous brush with the law. Timo Lochocki, a political scientist with the German Marshall Fund, said warnings from mainstream politicians wouldn't be enough to keep disappointed voters away from groups such as PEGIDA.

"They have to show that they are taking those voters seriously," he said, adding that Germany is likely to announce further policy changes to curtail the influx of migrants in the coming months.

Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

Racism, insomnia plague Syrian refugee family in Germany

October 16, 2015

HEIDENAU, Germany (AP) — For the Syrian refugee family, one reprieve from crushing boredom in the asylum center is short walks to a lake. But in a town teeming with neo-Nazis, the excursions can bring more distress than relief: A man recently stormed out of a coffee shop and screamed at two women of the Habashieh family to take off their hijabs "because we're in Europe!" Another time, people inside a car yelled: "Auslaender raus!!" — Foreigners out!!

Fear and frustration, however, have been tempered by kindness. A volunteer from nearby Dresden has befriended the Habashiehs, who fled Syria's civil war and are now living in a temporary facility in the eastern town of Heidenau after arriving in Germany last month, following a perilous journey from Damascus.

Julius Roennebeck helps the family — Khawla Kareem, 44; her 19-year-old daughter Reem; sons Mohammed, 17, and Yaman, 15; and 11-year-old daughter Raghad — with practical things such as getting warm blankets, juice and aspirin, and has bought them German-language books. More than anything, the family appreciates how Roennebeck, who plays French horn at Dresden's famed Semper Opera house, has driven the family to outings in Dresden and the nearby medieval town of Pirna.

"Julius is just wonderful," Reem says of the tall German musician. "He has been so kind to us." For Roennebeck, the kindness doesn't feel like a chore: "I just really like this family so much, they're great people."

The outings with Roennebeck are an oasis in a desert of misery that has left the family — except for little Raghad — depressed and listless. Most of the family gets up late in the morning, because they hardly sleep at night in the hall crammed with 700 other asylum seekers. Next to them is a new family with a little baby screaming for hours. Sometimes the young men get cabin fever so badly they start playing soccer inside the former home improvement center in the middle of the night. The officials turn off the light at 11 p.m., but the sounds of hundreds of people whispering in countless foreign languages echo through the building, creating a deafening buzz.

When it finally quiets down in the early morning hours, most of the family drifts into a deep slumber. But for Khawla Kareem, it's time to get up. Facing Mecca, she kneels down for the dawn prayer, and spends her day agonizing about their situation. Sitting on her narrow cot in their little curtained-off space, she often regrets taking her children away from their familiar life in Damascus. Desperate to shield them from the war, Khawla Kareem handed the family savings to traffickers who took them across the Mediterranean in a rubber boat, guided them on hidden trails across the Balkans, and eventually sped them in a minibus to Berlin.

Back home in Syria, Khawla Kareem, whose husband died three years ago, was the boss of the household. Now she feels powerless. "She had to make all the decisions herself, she worked as an elementary teacher, raised us kids, cleaned the house every day," says Reem. It was a tough life, especially keeping the children safe from war — but here, Khawla Kareem's inability to speak German makes her feel as if she's lost control of her destiny.

She can't send her kids to school, giving her a sense that they're wasting their lives. It upsets her to watch Raghad spend her days running around with other refugee kids, while her boys play cards with Syrian men all night long. The bathrooms are so dirty, she doesn't even want to use them.

It's the limbo that's the hardest on the mother. After two weeks in Berlin and a month in Heidenau, the Habashiehs still haven't been able to file their asylum application. On Tuesday, Khawla Kareem checked the center's blackboard for their names in vain. Again, the family had not been called up for any of the procedures, not even the initial health check. The examination, which includes an X-ray for tuberculosis and checks for itching and lice, is also a precondition to collecting weekly pocket money of about 30 euros per person.

The reason for the months-long delay in processing the asylum applications is the huge crush of people seeking refugee status. In September alone, some 164,000 people were pre-registered as asylum seekers; for all of 2015 the German government is expecting about a million newcomers. Despite the cold autumn weather, thousands are still trekking across the Balkans and entering Germany via the Austrian border.

German authorities are hiring additional staff to speed up the procedures. Still there's a backlog. Some experts estimate it may take up to a year for Syrian refugees to receive asylum status. Syrians will most certainly be allowed to stay in Germany — in contrast to many applicants from countries like Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo or Albania, which the government considers safe. But there's not much they can do while awaiting a decision. They're not allowed to work for their first three months in Germany, and they are not allowed to leave the county they are placed in until they are granted asylum. Often schools are too far away for children to attend on a regular basis.

Reem has been shouldering much of the responsibility for the family since arriving in Germany. She keeps up a brave face, knocking on officials' doors every other week to make sure the family's papers didn't get lost, and talking to medical staff if one of them falls ill.

The pretty young woman with big hazel eyes rarely allows herself a weak moment, but she, too, is sinking under the strain. "Since last week, I'm not my active self anymore," she admits. "I even couldn't make myself get out of bed in the morning."

Only little Raghad stays in high spirits. She gives her mom hugs and kisses when she cries, and spends hours roller-blading in front of the shelter. She seems to be mastering German better than the rest of the family.

And she has made lots of new friends, especially among security staff. "There are Kevin and Frank, and there's a female guard with blue eyes and another one who recently dyed her hair pink, but now it's black again — they all are my friends," she chatters away, waving to a grim-looking guard. He breaks into a smile.

"I've made two more friends, a Kurdish girl and another Syrian, and we ride bicycles or play hopscotch," Raghad says, pulling a big gray hat with silver sparkles down her head, shivering on a gray October day. "But really, I miss studying and school more than anything."

Suddenly, she runs over to her guard friends to show off the new German words she has learned: "Es ist sehr kalt in Deutschland!" It's very cold in Germany.

Thousands rally at German protest against refugees, Islam

October 12, 2015

DRESDEN, Germany (AP) — Thousands of Germans took part Monday in a protest organized by the anti-Islam group PEGIDA, almost one year after it held its first rally in the eastern city of Dresden.

Police declined to provide a crowd count for the protest, which passed peacefully. An AP reporter estimated the crowd at about 7,000-8,000. Speakers including PEGIDA co-founder Lutz Bachmann denounced the decision of German Chancellor Angela Merkel government's decision to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of whom are fleeing conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

"They are leading us straight into a European civil war," Bachmann told the crowd in front of Dresden's famous Semperoper opera house. Protesters responded with chants of "Merkel must go" and calls to deport refugees. One protester carried a mock gallows with two hangman's nooses, marked "Reserved for Angela Merkel" and "Reserved for Sigmar Gabriel," her deputy.

PEGIDA, the German acronym for "Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West," has seen a fresh rise in support in recent months, though rallies remain smaller than their peak of 25,000 in January.

Tatjana Festerling, a speaker who earlier this year received almost 10 percent of the vote as PEGIDA's candidate in the Dresden mayoral elections, suggested that the state of Saxony should split from the rest of Germany. Saxony has seen some of the most violent protests against refugees in recent months.

Some in the crowd waved Hungarian and Russian flags and chanted "Merkel to Siberia, Putin to Berlin." Most declined to speak to reporters, referring to them as "lying press," a term favored by Nazi propagandists such as Joseph Goebbels.

Thousands stranded on new migrant route through Europe

October 18, 2015

OPATOVAC, Croatia (AP) — Tension was building among thousands of migrants as they remained stranded in fog and cold weather in the Balkans on Sunday in their quest to reach a better life in Western Europe, a day after Hungary closed its border with Croatia and the flow of people was redirected to a much slower route via Slovenia.

Tiny Slovenia has said it will only take in 2,500 people a day, significantly stalling the movement of people as they fled their countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. On Saturday, more than 6,000 people reached Croatia, but most of them were stuck in the country as well as in neighboring Serbia on Sunday— and thousands kept on arriving.

On the Serbian-Croatian border, tensions flared and scuffles erupted as hundreds of irritated migrants faced a cordon of Croatian policemen preventing them from entry. The Balkan migrant route switched to Slovenia early Saturday after Hungary's right-wing government closed its border to Croatia for the influx, citing security concerns and saying it wants to protect the European Union from an uncontrolled flow of people.

Slovenian officials said they can't accept 5,000 migrants per day as asked by Croatia, which is likely to cause a further backlog in the flow. Interior Ministry official Bostjan Sefic said Slovenia can't take more than neighboring Austria, which said it can accept 1,500 per day.

"If we would accept 5,000 migrants per day that would mean 35,000 would be in Slovenia in 10 days," Sefic said, taking into account those who leave for Austria. "That would be unacceptable." Slovenia said Sunday it won't allow entry to about 1,800 migrants on a train from Croatia after more than 2,000 people have already entered in one day. Some 5,000 other migrants will have to spend a cold night in a camp in Opatovac, eastern Croatia, before they can head toward Slovenia, the next step on their journey toward richer EU states, such as Germany or Sweden.

Across the border in Serbia, thousands of people have been sitting in some 50 buses since early hours Sunday waiting to cross to Croatia. More are expected to arrive during the day. "We are waiting here 4 hours on the bus," said Muhammad Samin from Afghanistan. "The weather is too cold. We wear lots of shirts. The children are also in the cold. No food."

The United Nations refugee agency warned that Hungary's decision to close its border for migrants has increased their suffering and could lead to a backlog down the so-called Balkan route that goes from Turkey through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia.

Babar Baloch, regional spokesman for Central Europe for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said the new migrant route through Slovenia has significantly prolonged their already weeks-long journey.

"The decision by Hungary to close its border has certainly added to the suffering and misery and the length of the journey for these desperate people," Baloch said. "There will be challenges if the process becomes slow or we have a backlog of people."

The Hungarian border closure is the latest demonstration of EU's uncoordinated response to the surge of people reaching its borders. More than 600,000 people, mostly Syrians, have reached Europe since the beginning of this year.

Hungary decided to close the border with Croatia after EU leaders last week failed to agree on a plan backed by Hungary to send EU forces to block migrants from reaching Greece from Turkey. It did the same on Sept. 15 on the border with Serbia after erecting a razor wire fence on both frontiers.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was meeting Turkish leaders on Sunday to promote an EU plan that would offer aid and concessions to Turkey in exchange for measures to stem the mass movement of migrants into Europe.

Merkel arrived in Istanbul as thousands of new arrivals a day are stretching Germany's capacity to house refugees and other migrants. Officials said the incentives offered to Turkey would involve an aid package of at least 3 billion euros ($3.4 billion) to help Turkey host the more than 2 million refugees that are in the country, as well as easier access to EU visas for Turkish citizens and re-energized EU membership talks.

Dusan Stojanovic and Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, Ali Zerdin in Ljubljana, Slovenia, Ivana Bzganovic in Berkasovo, Serbia, and Amer Cohadzic from the Croatia-Slovenia border, contributed to this report.

Thousands rush into Croatia as police reopen Serbia border

October 19, 2015

BERKASOVO, Serbia (AP) — Thousands of people trying to reach the heart of Europe surged across Serbia's border into Croatia on Monday after authorities eased restrictions that had left them stranded for days in ankle-deep mud and rain.

The miserable wave of humanity left behind a field scattered with soaked blankets, mud-caked clothing and water-logged tents as they headed for Slovenia, the next obstacle to their quest to reach richer European Union nations via the Balkans.

Monday's surprise move allowed an estimated 3,000 more migrants to enter Croatia bound for its small Alpine neighbor, which also has been struggling to slow the flow of humanity across its frontiers — and faced another wave of trekkers seeking to reach Austria and Germany to the north.

"Without any announcement, the borders opened. When the borders opened, everybody rushed," said Melita Sunjic, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, who was stationed at the Serb-Croat border. Many had discarded their mud-soaked socks and walked only in sandals or slippers through the ankle-deep muck in a driving rain, frigid winds and fog. Some who had lost limbs during the civil war in Syria were aided by friends pushing their wheelchairs down a country lane that, since Saturday, had been blocked by Croat police.

Now the officers stood aside to permit asylum-seekers by the thousands to walk toward buses for transport north — where they would become Slovenia's problem. Croatia's prime minister, Zoran Milanovic, said his country had hoped to minimize the flow of people following Hungary's decision to seal its border with Croatia, but conditions on the poorly sheltered Serb side of the border had quickly grown unbearable.

"It's apparent that this is no solution, so we will let them through. We will send them toward Slovenia," Milanovic said. Aid workers handed out blue rain ponchos and bags of food to travelers, many of them slipping in the mud as they walked across the border. Officials on the Croat side planned to bus the newcomers either to a Croat refugee camp or — far more likely, given asylum seekers' reluctance to stop before reaching their desired destinations — to the Slovenian border.

Slovenia's Interior Ministry said some 5,000 people had reached its borders Monday, and most were allowed to enter, with at least 900 reaching Austria by the evening. Slovenia had vowed to let in no more than 2,500 migrants per day.

Slovenian President Borut Pahor insisted his country would accept only as many travelers as could be funneled directly on to Austria. He said Slovenia was determined not to be left holding the bag should Austria or Germany suddenly stop accepting refugee applicants.

"As long as Austria will control the flow of refugees, we will have to do the same on the Slovenian-Croatian border," Pahor said. An empty field near the Serbian border town of Berkasovo was littered with discarded belongings in an illustration of just how desperately those who had been stuck there wanted to cross into Croatia. Only hours before, its rows of tents had been packed with people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Now only a few hundred remained. Dozens could be seen in the distance walking into Croatia, many carrying children on their backs.

Left behind in the scramble were stuffed toys, a milk bottle, a child's rubber boot, crayons scattered in the mud and soaked blankets. Cleaning crews could be seen collecting the scattered belongings with shovels in hopes of clearing the boggy field in time for the next migrant wave coming north from Macedonia.

One of the last to cross into Croatia on Monday was a 28-year-old Syrian who had lost a leg in that country's civil war and was being pushed by friends in a mud-caked wheelchair. The group stared, eyes vacant with exhaustion, at nearby Croat cornfields as the man, who gave only his first name, Less, lit a cigarette with shaking hands.

"We have no more money, no jacket, no food," he said, pleading to be permitted to reach Germany without further delays. Officials in Serbia, Slovenia and Croatia all accused each other of making a bad situation worse.

Slovenia accused the Croats of breaking an agreement to limit the number of migrants crossing into its territory to 2,500 per day. Croatian officials insisted no such deal could be enforced because they lacked legal powers to confine travelers to Croat emergency shelters, which remain less than half full.

When the day's first train carrying an estimated 1,800 people stopped near Slovenia shortly after midnight, they found their path blocked in both directions by rival deployments of Croat and Slovene police, each arguing the trekkers must seek shelter in the other country.

This created a no-man's land on the border, where many were forced to spend the night in the open in the bitter cold and pelting rain. Some piled up soggy tree branches for fires. "It's completely unacceptable," said Slovene Interior Minister Vesna Gyorkos Znidar, who accused Croatia of seeking to dump "an unlimited number of immigrants" on Slovenia rather than make an effort to them into staying at Croatian shelters.

But Croatia retorted that it, too, was being unfairly burdened by unrelenting flows from Serbia, where U.N. officials estimate another 10,000 asylum seekers — more than double the summer's typical flow — are currently traveling north to Croatia.

Before the Croat authorities lifted the border restrictions on Monday, parents desperate to get their children out of the cold and rain could be seen handing them over the security barriers to police. Many others fed up with waiting in the rain tried to outflank police positions, walking through muddy orchards and cornfields.

"We are in cold weather and the place is not good," said Farouk al-Hatib, a Syrian who was waiting to cross from Serbia. "Our message for the governments is to take into consideration our suffering." Croatian government leaders argue that it's pointless, if not impossible, to stop people who overwhelmingly express determination to reach wealthier nations in Western Europe, chiefly Germany.

"The Republic of Croatia has asked these refugees to stay at our reception centers until their status is resolved, but they all refuse," said Matija Posavec, governor of Medjimurje, Croatia's northernmost county bordering Slovenia. "They could have stayed on board the train. They could have stayed at the reception centers, but none of them really want that. ... They just want to pass."

Associated Press reporters Amer Cohadzic in Obrezje, Slovenia; Ali Zerdin in Ljubljana, Slovenia; Balint Szlanko in Trnosev, Croatia; Ivana Bzganovic in Berkasovo, Serbia; Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, and Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin contributed to this report.

Guinea president takes big lead in re-election bid

October 17, 2015

CONAKRY, Guinea (AP) — Guinea President Alpha Conde is well ahead in his bid for re-election and could garner enough support to avoid a runoff, according to preliminary results, though his closest rival on Saturday denounced an "electoral hold-up" and said he would organize demonstrations against the vote.

With as much as 90 percent of votes counted, the latest tally from the country's electoral commission showed Conde with 2.2 million votes, more than 1 million more than leading opposition candidate Cellou Dalein Diallo. Figures from Friday pointed to a turnout of around 66 percent of 6 million registered voters.

The Oct. 11 vote was only the second democratic presidential contest since Guinea gained independence from France in 1958. Violence marked the run-up to the poll, with at least three killed, and many worry the opposition will take to the streets if Conde wins outright in the first round — a feat that requires that he receive more than 50 percent of votes cast.

Earlier this week, Diallo and fellow opposition candidate Sidya Toure — who placed third in 2010 — withdrew from the process, alleging fraud. On Saturday Diallo said he did not trust the courts to address his concerns and would resort to demonstrations instead.

"I will invite the other candidates and all the citizens who are the real victims of this electoral hold-up to organize, conforming to the law, peaceful demonstrations to express our disapproval of this situation," Diallo said.

Conde and Diallo faced off in a runoff in 2010. At least seven people were killed in election-related violence that year, and some 50 people died in the run-up to Guinea's 2013 legislative elections, according to Human Rights Watch.

The electoral commission plans to announce provisional results on Saturday, though possibly not until late evening to reduce the risk of clashes.