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EU ministers pledge steps to tackle migrant flood
Tallinn (AFP) July 6, 2017

Austria rows back on Italy border troop threat
Vienna (AFP) July 5, 2017 - Austria sought to dampen a row with neighbour Italy on Wednesday after it prompted outrage from Rome by threatening to send troops to the border to stop migrants entering.

"There is no need to employ temporary border controls... with Italy," a joint statement from Chancellor Christian Kern and his Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil said.

Doskozil on Monday caused uproar by suggesting that Vienna was prepared to mobilise troops along the main Brenner mountain pass through the Alps between Italy and Austria to protect his country from migrants.

In response, Italy summoned Austria's ambassador and Interior Minister Marco Minniti warned that Vienna's "unjustified" threat could impact security cooperation between the two countries.

Kern's media office told AFP he had spoken with Italian officials on Wednesday "to remove any misunderstanding".

The United Nations' migration agency said this week that the number of people arriving in Europe after crossing the Mediterranean in 2017 had topped 100,000.

Italy has taken in nearly 85 percent -- most of them sub-Saharan Africans crossing from conflict-ravaged Libya -- and has pleaded for help from other European Union nations, saying it is struggling to cope.

Minniti said Wednesday that other EU countries should share the burden of the migrant crisis.

"It's difficult to think of an international rescue mission while leaving the problem of receiving (migrants) to a single country," he told lawmakers in Rome.

Italy will host an international conference Thursday aimed at tackling the ongoing migrant influx, as European Union ministers meet in Tallinn to discuss ways of better managing the crisis.

EU interior ministers on Thursday pledged to back an urgent European Commission plan to help crisis-hit Italy, which has been overwhelmed by a wave of migrants arriving by sea from North Africa.

Ministers from across the bloc gathered in the Estonian capital Tallinn after Italy, which has accepted around 85,000 of the 100,000 people who have arrived this year, appealed desperately for help.

At the close of the talks, ministers issued a rare written statement, saying: "The situation in the Central Mediterranean and the resulting pressure on Italy is of great concern to all member states."

The move was hailed by Italian Interior Minister Marco Minniti.

"There has been a recognition of the question raised by Italy," he said of the talks that were chaired by Estonia, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.

"Italy is not alone and will not have to act on its own," Estonian Interior Minister Andres Anvelt told reporters after the meeting.

In recent weeks, Italy has stepped up calls for help, pleading with its European partners to make a "concrete contribution" by opening their ports to rescue ships to share the burden.

At the end of June, Italy threatened to stop vessels from other countries disembarking rescued migrants at its ports.

The influx has exacerbated tensions with neighbouring Austria, which this week threatened to send troops to its border with Italy to stop migrants entering.

Central to Thursday's talks was a European Commission plan which earmarks 35 million euros ($40 million) in aid for Rome as well as proposals for working with Libya and other countries to stem the flow of migrants.

- 'Plan of action' -

While no new measures were adopted at the meeting, ministers expressed support for a "plan of action" presented Tuesday by the European Commission which puts in place, "better and more quickly", certain elements previously agreed upon, according to a European source.

They include a joint rescue coordination centre which would improve rescue efforts with Libya's coastguard and offer it better training and equipment.

It also includes a plan to help Libya strengthen control over its porous southern border while working with Egypt, Niger, Ethiopia and Sudan to improve the repatriation process for migrants who don't meet the criteria for international protection.

However, an analysis by the Eurasia Group think tank said the EU's response would likely be "timid" with the new measures expected to only "marginally stem the migrant flow".

Under the EU's asylum policy, asylum seekers are supposed to be processed in the country where they first arrive.

Ministers also hailed a proposed "code of conduct" to regulate non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on rescue missions patrolling off the coast of Libya.

Despite their humanitarian mission, aid groups have come under fire with some critics saying their presence encourages migrants to attempt the crossing.

But the groups say not acting would risk lives, with smugglers putting migrants out to sea in unseaworthy vessels with little fuel or water.

"We have no problem with NGOs," European Union Commissioner for Refugees Dimitris Avramopoulos said. "The idea is to better our working relationship using more coordinated efforts".

Most of those landing in Italy are sub-Saharan Africans who have crossed the Mediterranean from Libya, a journey that has so far claimed more than 2,200 lives this year, UN figures show.

Government data released Thursday also show that Italy has received 73,000 asylum applications since the start of the year -- an increase of 46 percent from the first six months of 2016.

- 'Mission bankruptcy' -

In Rome, top diplomats from the EU and Africa met officials from the United Nations and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Thursday over the ongoing crisis.

The talks grouped foreign ministers from Libya, Niger, Tunisia, Egypt, Chad, Ethiopia and Sudan with their counterparts from Germany, Austria, Spain, France, The Netherlands, Malta and Estonia.

"In order to lower the number of people arriving here, we must reduce the number arriving in Libya," Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said after the talks.

"If border controls in transit countries are effective, then the 'tickets' sold by the biggest criminal travel agency in history would lose their value.

"If the traffickers can't guarantee an arrival in Europe, their travel agency would go bankrupt," he said. "That is our mission."

The ministers ended with a call for investment to help young people and women in their countries of origin, as well as supporting beefed-up border controls in such countries.

They also agreed to help the UN refugee agency and the IOM increase their presence along the migrant trail and develop communication strategies to warn would-be migrants about the dangers of the journey.


Holiday weekend leaves more than 100 gunfire victims in Chicago
Washington (AFP) July 5, 2017
The United States celebrated Independence Day with a long weekend of barbecues and fireworks, but in violence-plagued Chicago more than 101 were hit by gunfire, with 14 dying of their wounds, the Chicago Tribune said on Wednesday. The youngest of the victims was just 13 years old and the eldest 60, the newspaper said, noting that the shootings were concentrated in the south and west of the c ... read more

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