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Friday, March 11, 2016

Hungary seeks to cut rights of asylum-seekers

March 07, 2016

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungary is planning to cut cash and other subsidies for asylum-seekers, reduce the individual space they are allotted in detention centers to the size given prison inmates, and scrap measures designed to help them integrate into society, according to draft legislation published Monday.

The government said its amendments to government decrees and the Asylum Act were designed to bring the rights and payments given to refugees in line with those offered to Hungarians. But the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group, said the government's true aim was to discourage those granted asylum in Hungary to stay.

"It takes away the possibility of starting a new life even from those the government recognized as needing protection," said Helsinki Committee co-chair Marta Pardavi. "The objective is to make asylum-seekers leave."

Other proposed measures include cutting from two months to one month the time that asylum recipients can stay in state-funded reception centers and reducing their eligibility for state-paid health care services from one year to six months.

The amendments taking effect April 1 would ban asylum-seekers from working in reception centers, eliminate school enrollment benefits and take away their monthly cash stipend of 7,125 forints ($25.30).

Prime Minister Viktor Orban has repeatedly warned that an influx of Muslim immigrants poses a threat to Hungarians' lifestyle and endangers Europe's Christian culture. Hungary says it has spent some 80 billion forints ($284 million) so far on the migrant crisis and received only 3 billion forints ($10.6 million) for this purpose from the European Union.

The government last year built fences on its border with Serbia and Croatia to divert the flow of migrants. The Cabinet will decide this week whether to extend the barrier to sections of the Romanian border.

In 2015, Hungary granted asylum or other kinds of protection to 508 newcomers.

Despair, confusion in Greece as refugees face closed border

March 08, 2016

IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — Despair and confusion spread through the camp at the Greek-Macedonian border Tuesday as thousands of stranded refugees were forced to acknowledge that the route through Europe that had carried their hopes and dreams was now shut.

The dozens of people crammed together at the front of the line to the border crossing looked at the closed gate and razor wire in disbelief. One young Syrian muttered he had been in the tent at the crossing for five days without sleeping. It was his 15th day at the Idomeni refugee camp.

One woman broke down, crying and screaming as she held her baby in her arms while a man tried to calm and comfort her. Refugees asked reporters what had happened in Brussels, and asked what they could or should do next.

European Union leaders who held a summit with Turkey said early Tuesday they hoped they had reached the outlines for a possible deal with Ankara to return thousands of migrants to Turkey, and said they were confident a full agreement could be reached at a summit next week.

They also said the "irregular flows of migrants along the Western Balkans route have now come to an end." Nobody has crossed through the Idomeni border gate since early Monday morning. The nail in the coffin for the main Balkan migration route came late Tuesday evening, when Serbia's Interior Ministry said Slovenia will demand valid EU visas at its borders as of midnight Tuesday. That means Serbia will act accordingly and close its borders with Macedonia and Bulgaria for those who do not have valid documents.

Nearly 14,000 people, who all risked their lives to get to Greece, have waited for days and weeks in the cold, rain and mud at the overflowing refugee camp in Idomeni, ripping branches off trees to use as firewood.

About 100 people boarded two buses, one Tuesday morning and one in the evening, bound south for Athens and whichever refugee camp might have room for them. Greek authorities have said they will not forcibly evacuate people from Idomeni.

Some said they still had hope. "I will just wait," said Aslan al Katib, a 21-year-old Syrian format engineering student from Damascus who hopes to reach Germany. "We want to continue our journey." Al Katib said he had worked for months in Turkey, stacking heavy boxes in a factory making baby strollers, working 12 hours a day, six days a week for little pay, to finance his journey across Europe.

"Trust me, I worked hard for this. And for what? They say 'we are closed, we don't want to let you pass.'" He said he wanted to finish his studies in Germany, learn German and then repay Germany by working hard for the country, and ultimately go home to Syria when the war is over.

"It's a bad situation. What are we now to do? What are we waiting for?" al Katib questioned. "I work hard. Just give me security." Human rights and aid organizations criticized the EU-Turkey plan. "European leaders have completely lost track of reality, and the deal currently being negotiated between the EU and Turkey is one of the clearest examples of their cynicism," said Aurelie Ponthieu, humanitarian affairs adviser on displacement for the Medecins Sans Frontiers medical aid organization.

"For each refugee that will risk their life at sea and will be summarily sent back to Turkey, another one may have the chance to reach Europe from Turkey under a proposed resettlement scheme. This crude calculation reduces people to mere numbers, denying them humane treatment and discarding their right to seek protection."

Twenty-year-old Samih Samman, 20, from Damascus, said he had been in Idomeni for 15 days. "I don't know what to do any more. I spend my days in a large tent along with my mother and my two brothers," who are aged 16 and 10. "I hope they will allow at least the families to go through."

The developments came after a particularly miserable night, with strong wind and driving, heavy rain. With the official camp overflowing, thousands of people have set up small tents donated by aid agencies in the surrounding fields and along the adjacent railway tracks. And still more people arrive each day, many walking for miles from a nearby petrol station where buses from Athens stop.

The overnight thunderstorm turned parts of the field into a muddy swamp, with refugees lighting small campfires to dry out their wet clothes and blankets in the morning fog. "Everything here is like a big casino and they play, dirty play. We are the playing cards. No one looks at us as humankind," Syrian Abu Haida said of the results of the summit in Brussels. "We have dreams, life, children."

Nicolae Dumitrache and Costas Kantouris in Idomeni, Greece, contributed.

Refugees stranded in Greece await news of their fate

March 07, 2016

IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — While European leaders struggled Monday for a unified approach to the refugee crisis, tens of thousands of people affected by their decisions were left stranded in Greece, with countries along the migrant trail gradually tightening border controls to staunch the northward flood.

The restrictions along what has become known as the western Balkan route has left about 13,000-14,000 people stuck on the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni, and more than 36,000 people in the financially stricken country.

The European Union held a summit meeting Monday with Turkey to try to halt the flow of thousands of refugees and migrants coming from the Turkish coast to nearby Greek islands, whose proximity has made the country the preferred route into Europe.

But while European leaders haggled in Brussels, a punishing thunderstorm turned much of the overcrowded Idomeni camp into a sea of mud. Conditions are deteriorating in the camp, which was set up only for about 2,000 people, and crews are struggling to maintain hygiene.

More people have arrived each day, and hundreds of small tents from aid organizations have sprung up in and around the camp, spilling into fields and onto nearby railway tracks and a train station platform, with nowhere to go.

Until a few months ago, Idomeni was a transit camp where people would stay for a couple of days before continuing northward. But Macedonia began tightening the controls late last year, saying other countries farther up the line — Serbia, Croatia and Austria — were doing the same.

First the route was closed to people considered economic migrants, with only those from countries affected by war — Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan — allowed to cross. Then, in November, the Afghans were stopped, too.

Ever more stringent restrictions have appeared since then. In recent days, Macedonia began denying entry to Syrians and Iraqis whose registration papers from the Greek authorities had been signed in black ink, rather than blue.

On Sunday, Macedonia allowed in only people from cities deemed to have been affected by war, meaning those from Aleppo, for example, could cross, but not those from Damascus, the Syrian capital. The restrictions have led to occasional protests by frustrated refugees who stage sit-down protests on the railway tracks, blocking freight trains.

Even though there were no trains Monday, dozens of men, women and children sat on the tracks holding banners, waving a German flag and chanting, "Germany, Germany," and "Mama Merkel," referring to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom they consider sensitive to their plight.

"We are protesting because of the Macedonians and because we know all of their imports are coming from the sea on these railway tracks," said Syrian Abdul Rahman, "and I, for one, if the train comes here, I will die on these railway tracks if (the Macedonians) don't open the gate at the border."

Macedonia has said it can only take in as many people from Greece as Serbia will allow to enter from Macedonia. Serbia has severely restricted the flow in recent days. This has led to about 1,500 people being stuck on the Macedonian-Serbian border — 630 Afghans and the rest Syrians and Iraqis.

The largest bottleneck in Europe is in Idomeni, where those in the growing tent city say they had no choice but to flee their homes and seek the safety of Europe, with the dream of reconstructing their lives.

"We were stuck with a decision," said Hala Haddad, a 19-year-old English literature student from Syria's battered city of Homs, traveling with her parents, older sister and younger brother. "Would you rather stay in your home and die, or leave without a home? We chose to live."0

The International Rescue Committee aid group said in a statement on the Brussels summit that closing European borders without offering safe alternative routes will benefit only the people smugglers. IRC head David Miliband said the EU "cannot seal off its borders without offering safe and legal routes to refuge, effective relocation for refugees already in Europe, and better aid for Syria's neighbors."

"Europe's response needs concerted and coordinated action, not a race to the bottom," Miliband added.

Khaled Kazziha in Idomeni and Konstantin Testorides in Skopje, Macedonia, contributed.

Governor asks Greece to declare state of emergency

March 05, 2016

IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — A regional governor called on the Greek government Saturday to declare a state of emergency for the area surrounding the Idomeni border crossing where thousands of migrants are stranded due to border restrictions along the route toward western Europe.

Some 13,000-14,000 people are trapped in Idomeni, while another 6,000-7,000 are being housed in refugee camps around the region, said Apostolos Tzitzikostas, governor of the Greek region of Central Macedonia. That means the area handles about 60 percent of the total number of migrants in the country.

"It's a huge humanitarian crisis. I have asked the government to declare the area in a state of emergency," Tzitzikostas said during a visit to Idomeni to distribute aid to the Red Cross and other non-governmental organizations. "This cannot continue for much longer."

The neighboring former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia has stopped all but a trickle of Iraqi and Syrian refugees from crossing, following similar restrictions by countries further north on the migration route. The moves have caused a huge bottleneck in Greece, whose islands' proximity to the Turkish coast has made it the preferred entry point for refugees and other migrants seeking better lives in Europe.

Greek authorities said only 184 people crossed the border between 6 a.m. Friday and the same time Saturday morning, while another 100 crossed between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. "The former Yugoslav republic needs to open immediately to borders and the European Union needs to implement severe action against the countries that are closing borders today, whether they are members of the European Union or candidate members," Tzitzikostas said. "This is unacceptable what they are doing."

The governor said the region needed the emergency measures — or alternatively for the law to be amended — so that regional authorities can obtain the necessary emergency supplies and food to support the refugees and improve their living conditions. He also called on the government to provide a comprehensive plan on how to handle the migration crisis.

The refugee camp at Idomeni has a capacity of about 2,000 and has dramatically overflowed, with new arrivals daily setting up small tents along the railway tracks next to the camp and spilling out into surrounding fields.

Hundreds of men, women and children arrive each day, walking more than 15 kilometers (about 10 miles) from a nearby gas station where an impromptu camp has been set up. Greek authorities have been trying to discourage more people from arriving because of the bottleneck, but many prefer to wait at the border than in other refugee camps set up nearby, in the hope of getting into the giant line waiting to cross.

As the impromptu camp in the fields has swelled, many of its residents have begun to settle in for the medium term, realizing they will be here for several days at the very least. Authorities set up more large tents Saturday to house the increasing number of arrivals.

One thing that has been in short supply is firewood, which the refugees use to ward off the nighttime cold and to cook in the fields. Many have been breaking branches off nearby trees, dragging them down the road to cut into smaller pieces to feed their campfires.

A tractor trailer that arrived with a large supply of wood was instantly mobbed, with refugees scrambling to grab logs before the driver could get to his delivery point. The European Union and Turkey will hold a summit on Monday to discuss the refugee crisis which has severely strained relations among EU countries.

"We are expecting Turkey to start finally doing what it should be doing for months now and we also expect our European partners to start receiving refugees in their countries," the governor said. "There needs to be a proportional distribution between the countries."

It is the EU-Turkey summit that many in the camp are turning their attention to. "On Monday there's a meeting. Let's hope it's a decision in our favor," said Mohammed Ousou, a Syrian Kurd sitting by a small tent in the field as its occupants, Syrian Kurds, played music and sang traditional Kurdish songs, to the delight of passers-by who stopped to clap.

"All of us are waiting for that day. Because here the situation is bad. Every day we are losing money just to stay alive" buying food and supplies, Ousou said. The lunchtime line for a sandwich and a piece of fruit is about two hours long.

"We have to keep moving," chimed in Adnan Khantek, one of the musicians. "With God's will, we will go."

Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki contributed to this report.

Doctors Without Borders opens first migrant camp in France

March 07, 2016

GRANDE-SYNTHE, France (AP) — Doctors Without Borders did something in France on Monday that aid groups normally do in much poorer, more troubled places: opened a humanitarian camp for migrants. More than 1,000 people fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa have been living in squalid shelters in a muddy field near the English Channel shore, hoping to sneak across to Britain. Local authorities say the number includes 74 children.

About 150 people abandoned the camp in Grande-Synthe, near Dunkirk, to move Monday to wooden sheds with access to toilets and electricity built nearby by Doctors Without Borders, spokesman Samuel Hanryon said.

Families pushed luggage and piled bags on buses taking them across town to the new site. The aid group, known by its French acronym MSF, hopes hundreds more will join them in the coming days. The move is part of efforts to improve conditions for thousands of migrants who have converged on northern France amid Europe's migrant crisis.

It's MSF's first such camp in France — a sign of how bad things have become for the migrants in Grande-Synthe, whose camp is even more rudimentary than one dubbed the "jungle" in nearby Calais. The 2.5 million-euro site at Grande-Synthe comprises 4-person sheds and access to showers, kitchens and electricity.

A few police guarded the area but did not take part in Monday's move. In Calais, authorities are gradually evicting residents of part of the "jungle" camp and trying to get them to seek asylum in France or move to cleaner container facilities. A few Calais migrants came to the new MSF site Monday, Hanryon said.

Hundreds of Calais merchants and residents, meanwhile, converged on Paris on Monday to seek government help because the local economy has suffered amid the migrant crisis. A presidential adviser announced a new hotline to help struggling Calais businesses.

Europe effectively shuts its borders, stranding thousands

March 09, 2016

IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — After welcoming hundreds of thousands of people into its heartland, Europe seems to be finally closing its doors. The thousands of people massing at Greece's northern border are incredulous they won't be allowed onward to its prosperous countries, but after a year of dithering European leaders seem resolved now to keep all but a select few from going any further.

"This is horrible, unbelievable, unbearable. There is war in my country, and they are closing the border," said Mahmoud Hassan, a 23-year-old Syrian. "Where are we supposed to go? Please if you can do anything — help us. The situation is very, very terrible."

A relentless rain Wednesday after an overnight thunderstorm added to the misery in the overflowing camp at Idomeni, which now consists of thousands of small camping tents set up in nearby fields and along railway tracks.

The camp turned into a sodden, muddy mess, with refugees huddling in tents and under ponchos handed out by volunteers to ward off the worst of the wet and cold. Parents covered their children with whatever they could, sometimes resorting to plastic bags. In the brief intervals in the rain, long lines formed in the mud for sandwiches, tea and soup.

A lucky few managed to set up their tents on the train station platform, whose awning provides some shelter, while others slept in disused train carriages. EU and Turkish leaders agreed at a summit Monday to the broad outlines of a deal that would essentially outsource Europe's refugee emergency. They said people arriving in Greece having fled war or poverty would be sent back to Turkey unless they apply for asylum. For every migrant sent back, the EU would take in one Syrian refugee, thus trying to prevent the need for people to set out on dangerous sea journeys, often arranged by unscrupulous smugglers.

But Greece has a notoriously slow asylum process, and a crippling six-year financial crisis that has left unemployment at about 25 percent. Few of those stuck in Idomeni could envisage a future in Greece as a viable option.

"Greece is a poor country, for us and for (its) people," said 17-year-old Ahmed Merza from Syria's Qamishli, who had been in the camp for eight days. "I don't know anything. It's bad news for us, like a bomb."

Shortly after the summit, countries along the Balkan route decided to allow through only people with valid EU visas and nobody has crossed through the gate in the razor wire-reinforced fence in Idomeni since 6 a.m. Monday.

For the nearly 14,000 people in and around the camp, the news about the border closures was a crushing blow, with many just unable to fathom how Europe could turn away people fleeing war. A few dozen sat on the railway tracks in protest — a frequent occurrence in the camp, where refugees occasionally try to block the passage of freight trains to press their point.

"We're not here to stay. We are here to pass only," said Sami Yanes, a 24-year-old information technology student from the Syrian capital of Damascus hoping to continue his studies in Germany. "We are going to keep protesting and keep doing what we are doing until they know we are human beings and we deserve simple human rights," he said as he sat on the tracks in the pouring rain after seven nights spent in the camp.

"This is my path," he said, indicating the railroad leading into Macedonia. "I'm going to stay here until my path is open." But the rapidly deteriorating conditions in the camp, where the sound of men, women and children coughing is as ubiquitous as the sight of people trying to start camp fires with sodden logs and branches ripped from nearby trees, was too much for some.

Several buses headed for refugee camps in and around Athens departed from Idomeni on Tuesday and Wednesday, carrying those who could no longer bear the mud, rain, cold and scant food that require hours-long waits in queues.

Some were hesitant, however, to get on buses without knowing what they would find on the other side. Tariq Mohammed, a 27-year-old from Aleppo travelling with his wife and daughters, aged 5 and 2, was one of them.

"I don't know what will happen to us," he said, standing in the rising mud near his tent as water dripped off the hood of his donated green poncho. Mohammed said both his children had fallen very sick, as had his wife. The doctor had given them antibiotics, but in such conditions he worried about how they would recover their health.

"Last night in the rain, my tent was swimming in water," he said. Although most people say they want to go to Germany, which they see as a welcoming country, Mohammed said he would happily go to any European country that would take in his family. Staying in Greece wasn't an option because there was no work, he said.

"I need to work, to have a life for my children and family," he said, the desperation visible on his face. "You need life." He left Aleppo a month ago, where the conditions were incredibly dangerous. "There are bombs everywhere, war everywhere," he said, describing a city where children as young as 10 have been recruited to fight and tote guns in the street.

For now, he plans to remain put in the sodden field by the railway tracks in Idomeni. "I will wait for the border to open," he said. "I can't go back to Turkey, can't go back to Syria. I am here. Where to go?"

Amer Cohadzic in Idomeni contributed.

Thai ex-premier says ruling junta seeks 'backward democracy'

March 10, 2016

NEW YORK (AP) — Thailand's former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006, has accused the ruling junta of trying to push through a new constitution designed to limit democracy.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday after an event at the World Policy Institute, Thaksin also wished a long life to Thailand's ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej. After dismissing Thaksin and seizing power, the military held elections in 2007, which Thaksin's party won easily. But after a series of political upheavels, during which Thaksin fled the country, new elections were held in 2011 that also were won by Thaksin's party led by his sister, who became the prime minister.

But her government was removed in a 2014 coup by the military, which is now drafting a constitution that allows for an unelected prime minister and proposes giving wide powers to the Constitutional Court and appointing an unelected Senate. Coup leader Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has promised to hold elections by the end of 2017.

Thaksin said any elections held under the new constitution will deny the will of the majority of the people. "That is backward democracy," he said. "Under democracy, you have to give the power to the people."

He said Thais are very patient people, and were willing to believe the military when it said it is taking over power to "reconcile the differences of the people in the country." "But so far, one-and-a-half years (later), they have nothing (to show for) on reconciliation," he said, adding that in fact the opposite is true. The military rulers are "only trying to use the law to benefit their own politics."

Thaksin was convicted of corruption in absentia in 2008 and sentenced to two years in jail. His passport was revoked, and he now travels on passports from Montenegro and Nicaragua. His sister, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, has also been charged with alleged mismanagement of a rice subsidy program for which she faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

Thaksin, 66, said he speaks to Yingluck "quite often, but everyone knows this is the only case in the world" where a prime minister has been prosecuted over a policy, which has effectively banned her from politics for five years.

"This is really ridiculous and we worry about the justice that she will receive," he said. Thaksin said he misses home but is not really in a rush to return. "I wish I can go (home). I'm quite settled outside Thailand and if I go back to Thailand it should benefit the country and the people. Otherwise I'm not really serious about going back," said Thaksin, who lives in the United Arab Emirates.

It was an attempt by Yingluck's government to push a plan for an amnesty bill that would have allowed her brother to return to Thailand that triggered the 2014 coup.

Suu Kyi loyalist confirmed for Myanmar presidential race

March 11, 2016

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (AP) — A longtime confidante of Aung San Suu Kyi was confirmed Friday in a parliamentary vote as one of the three final candidates to be Myanmar's next president, albeit as a proxy for the Nobel laureate.

Htin Kyaw of the National League for Democracy party was approved by a 274-29 vote in the lower house of parliament to be a finalist for the presidential election next week. A second NLD candidate. Henry Van Tio, was chosen as the second finalist by the upper house with a 148-13 vote. A third candidate will be put forward by the military bloc, which has a constitutionally mandated 25 percent of reserved seats in parliament.

Legislators from both houses of parliament will hold another round of voting — for which no date has been set — to choose one of them as president, which almost certainly will be the 70-year-old Htin Kyaw (pronounced Tin CH-yaw). The other two will become vice presidents.

"We are satisfied that Htin Kyaw has won to become one of the presidential candidates. We believe that we soon will be able create a better future for our country. We chose him because he is skillful and a very suitable person to be the president," said Myo Zaw Aung, an NLD legislator.

Friday's vote became necessary because, in an unexpected move, the outgoing ruling party put forward its own two candidates Thursday, even though their candidacy was doomed from the start. The NLD has an overwhelming majority in both chambers following its landslide victory in the Nov. 8 general elections, which paved the way for the country's first democratically elected government since the military took power in 1962.

The new president will take office April 1. But for all practical purposes Htin Kyaw will be a proxy for Suu Kyi, who has said she will be "above" the president and rule from behind the scenes. This arrangement came into being because Suu Kyi is barred to be president by the constitution, which says anyone with a foreign spouse or children cannot hold the executive office. Suu Kyi's two sons are British, as was her late husband. The clause is widely seen as having been written by the military — Suu Kyi's longtime bitter adversary — with her in mind.

Suu Kyi fought for decades to end dictatorship in Myanmar, and remains her party's unquestioned leader. She was awarded the 1991 Nobel prize while under house arrest, where she spent 15 years locked away by a junta that feared her political popularity.

For the past several weeks Suu Kyi is believed to have held closed-door talks with the military generals to suspend the constitutional clause that bars her from the presidency, apparently without success.

Suu Kyi did not attend Thursday's high-profile nomination session but posted a letter on Facebook to her legions of supporters. She called it a "first step toward realizing the expectations and desires of the people who overwhelmingly supported the National League for Democracy in the elections."

"It is our will to fulfill the people's desire," Suu Kyi said in the letter. "We will try as hard as we can to do that." Kyaw Thiha, an upper house NLD lawmaker, said Thursday that the new president will take orders from Suu Kyi.

"She cannot become the president, but it doesn't really matter because she will be controlling everything. She will be the one to control us," Kyaw Thiha said. "It doesn't really matter that she is not becoming the president."

Htin Kyaw is a computer science graduate from the University of London, and is contemporary of Suu Kyi, who also is 70. He enjoys her full confidence, and was usually seen by her side during her long struggle to bring democracy in Myanmar.

Htin Kyaw's father was a national poet and a National League for Democracy lawmaker from an aborted 1990 election, while his wife is a prominent legislator for the party in the current house. His father-in-law, a former army colonel, was a co-founder of the NLD.

A Myanmar expert expressed misgivings about having a proxy president and the repercussions it will have. Suu Kyi and and her supporters "are quite rightly indignant about the nakedly political nature of the prohibition against her," said John Ciorciari, an assistant professor at the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michgan.

"Yet by insisting that she will pull the strings and continue pursuing the office, she virtually ensures that Htin Kyaw will be perceived as a pass-through president. This makes him an easier target for military leaders keen to reassert control," he said in comments emailed to the AP.

Slovenia awaits birth of new generation of 'baby dragons'

March 08, 2016

POSTOJNA, Slovenia (AP) — Slovenia is counting down the days until the birth of a new generation of "baby dragons." Scientists in the Central European country have proudly announced that a female olm — a Gollum-like, lizard-sized amphibian living in an aquarium in the country's biggest cave — has laid eggs. They have described it as the first example of observed out-of-lab breeding of the species.

The eyeless pink animal, known as the "baby dragon" and "human fish" for its skin-like color, can live a century and breeds only once a decade — usually in laboratories throughout Europe or deep in caves away from people.

Slovenian scientists have been ecstatic about the prospects of having baby olms born in Postojna Cave. The eggs are expected to hatch in about 100 days, or sometime in June. "This is something truly extraordinary," said biologist Saso Weldt, who works at the cave in northwestern Slovenia. "Nobody has ever witnessed (their) reproduction in nature. We even haven't seen an animal younger than two years."

The olm was already in a big aquarium in the cave when the eggs were discovered by chance on Jan. 30 by a tour guide who noticed a little white dot attached to the fish tank's wall. A pregnant olm stood guard next to it, snapping at an intruder who tried to come close.

Scientists removed other inhabitants from the aquarium, leaving the mother alone with the eggs. In the weeks that followed, the olm laid a total of 57 eggs, three of which seem to be developing. Biologists say this is a good number, as olm eggs have a poor record in actually lasting the 120 days that are needed for them to mature and hatch.

"Olms are not really successful when it comes to reproduction," Weldt explained. Two years ago, a Postojna olm also laid eggs, but they fell prey to other cave inhabitants. So, this time biologists have isolated the female and her eggs in a dark spot, added extra oxygen and removed any outside influences.

A record number of visitors in February have been allowed nowhere near the mother and her eggs — tourists could only view a live video screening via special infrared cameras that were installed near the aquarium.

Slovenians, some of whom are contemplating declaring the olm the next "Slovenian of the Year," have been keeping their fingers crossed. "We did all that is in our power," biologist Weldt said. "Now we wait."