Croatian Border Police Fire at Van of Illegal Migrants; 9 Hurt

Nine people were hurt, including two children, when Croatian border police fired at a van full of illegal migrants that refused to stop.

Police said they discovered 29 people inside the van after it crossed the border from Bosnia.

The driver fled into the woods, and police were searching for him. 

The two wounded children were recovering in a hospital, and officials said their lives were not in danger.

“We are sorry about the children being injured in this incident,” Zadar town police chief Anton Drazina said. “Our priority is the fight against organized crime and protection of the state border and not against the migrants, but against the criminals who are unfortunately endangering the lives of the migrants by their smuggling activities.”

Police said most of the people in the van were from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants used the so-called Balkan route to cross into the European Union before the route was shut down. But a number of people still slip through.

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Croatian Border Police Fire at Van of Illegal Migrants; 9 Hurt

Nine people were hurt, including two children, when Croatian border police fired at a van full of illegal migrants that refused to stop.

Police said they discovered 29 people inside the van after it crossed the border from Bosnia.

The driver fled into the woods, and police were searching for him. 

The two wounded children were recovering in a hospital, and officials said their lives were not in danger.

“We are sorry about the children being injured in this incident,” Zadar town police chief Anton Drazina said. “Our priority is the fight against organized crime and protection of the state border and not against the migrants, but against the criminals who are unfortunately endangering the lives of the migrants by their smuggling activities.”

Police said most of the people in the van were from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants used the so-called Balkan route to cross into the European Union before the route was shut down. But a number of people still slip through.

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US Boasts ‘Taking Down Small Islands’ Not a Problem   

China’s militarization of man-made islands in the South China Sea will not scare off the United States, which is promising to continue carrying out so-called freedom-of-navigation exercises despite the rising threat. 

“I would just say that the United States military’s had a lot of experience in the Western Pacific taking down small islands,” Marine Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the Joint Staff, said Thursday when asked whether the U.S. could blow apart any of the Chinese-made islands. 

“We have a lot of experience in the Second World War taking down small islands that are isolated. So, that’s a core competency of the U.S. military,” McKenzie said, though he added China “shouldn’t read anything more into that than a simple statement of historical fact.” 

The U.S. Navy has been carrying out a series of exercises aimed at challenging China’s claims that parts of the South China Sea are part of its territorial waters, most recently by sailing two U.S. Navy warships near the Paracel Islands off the coast of Vietnam. 

China questioned the operation earlier Thursday, calling claims that it has been militarizing the South China Sea “ridiculous.” 

“This sounds like a case of a thief crying ‘stop, thief’ to cover their misdeeds,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said during a briefing. 

“The United States military presence in the South China Sea is greater than that of China and other countries that surround the seas combined,” she said. 

U.S. defense officials say China has been moving both surface-to-air missiles and air defense capabilities to islands in the South China Sea.

 Buildup of region criticized

Earlier this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis criticized China’s military buildup in the region.

“We have seen in the last month they have done exactly that, moving weaponry in that was never there before,” Mattis told reporters, accusing Beijing of backtracking on a 2015 promise by President Xi Jinping to then-President Barack Obama. 

Mattis also said China is the only country “that seems to take active steps to rebuff” freedom-of-navigation operations in international waters. 

The U.S. defense secretary spoke while on his way to Singapore for the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, a gathering of Asian defense officials and other leaders. 

His comments came after the Pentagon last week rescinded an invitation for China to participate in the RIMPAC maritime exercises later this year, citing China’s behavior in the South China Sea. 

A Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman rejected Mattis’ accusations Thursday but said ties between Beijing and Washington were “stable on the whole” despite the “hyped-up” accusations.

Spokesman Ren Guoqiang also expressed hope Mattis would visit China soon. 

“The two sides have been maintaining communication and coordination on the details,” he said.

VOA’s William Gallo contributed to this report.

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US Boasts ‘Taking Down Small Islands’ Not a Problem   

China’s militarization of man-made islands in the South China Sea will not scare off the United States, which is promising to continue carrying out so-called freedom-of-navigation exercises despite the rising threat. 

“I would just say that the United States military’s had a lot of experience in the Western Pacific taking down small islands,” Marine Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the Joint Staff, said Thursday when asked whether the U.S. could blow apart any of the Chinese-made islands. 

“We have a lot of experience in the Second World War taking down small islands that are isolated. So, that’s a core competency of the U.S. military,” McKenzie said, though he added China “shouldn’t read anything more into that than a simple statement of historical fact.” 

The U.S. Navy has been carrying out a series of exercises aimed at challenging China’s claims that parts of the South China Sea are part of its territorial waters, most recently by sailing two U.S. Navy warships near the Paracel Islands off the coast of Vietnam. 

China questioned the operation earlier Thursday, calling claims that it has been militarizing the South China Sea “ridiculous.” 

“This sounds like a case of a thief crying ‘stop, thief’ to cover their misdeeds,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said during a briefing. 

“The United States military presence in the South China Sea is greater than that of China and other countries that surround the seas combined,” she said. 

U.S. defense officials say China has been moving both surface-to-air missiles and air defense capabilities to islands in the South China Sea.

 Buildup of region criticized

Earlier this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis criticized China’s military buildup in the region.

“We have seen in the last month they have done exactly that, moving weaponry in that was never there before,” Mattis told reporters, accusing Beijing of backtracking on a 2015 promise by President Xi Jinping to then-President Barack Obama. 

Mattis also said China is the only country “that seems to take active steps to rebuff” freedom-of-navigation operations in international waters. 

The U.S. defense secretary spoke while on his way to Singapore for the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, a gathering of Asian defense officials and other leaders. 

His comments came after the Pentagon last week rescinded an invitation for China to participate in the RIMPAC maritime exercises later this year, citing China’s behavior in the South China Sea. 

A Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman rejected Mattis’ accusations Thursday but said ties between Beijing and Washington were “stable on the whole” despite the “hyped-up” accusations.

Spokesman Ren Guoqiang also expressed hope Mattis would visit China soon. 

“The two sides have been maintaining communication and coordination on the details,” he said.

VOA’s William Gallo contributed to this report.

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UN Agencies Agree to Help in Return of Rohingya to Myanmar

Myanmar’s government said it reached an agreement on Thursday with two U.N. agencies for their help in the return of refugees who fled violence in western Rakhine state.

About 700,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims have fled to squalid camps in neighboring Bangladesh since last August, when Myanmar’s army led a brutal crackdown following insurgent attacks on security posts.

Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed in November to begin repatriating the Rohingya, but the refugees expressed concern that they would be forced to return and would face unsafe conditions in Myanmar if the process is not monitored by international aid groups.

The government said in a statement that it initialed a memorandum of understanding with the U.N. Development Program and the U.N. refugee agency for their assistance so that verified displaced people “can return voluntarily in safety and dignity.”

The U.N. said in a separate statement that conditions in Myanmar are not yet appropriate for the voluntary return of the Rohingya, but that the agreement would support government efforts to improve the situation.

It said the agreement, which is expected to be formally signed within a week, will provide a framework for the two agencies to be given access to Rakhine state, which has not been allowed since the violence broke out in August.

It said that will allow the refugee agency to assess the situation, carry out protection activities, and provide information to refugees about conditions in their home areas so that they can better decide whether they want to return.

Myanmar’s security forces have been accused of rape, killing, torture and the burning of the homes of Rohingya villagers. The United Nations and the United States have described the army crackdown as “ethnic cleansing.”

Myanmar has said it will only allow refugees with identity documents – which most Rohingya lack – to return.

Rohingya Muslims face official and social discrimination in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, which denies most of them citizenship and basic rights because they are considered immigrants from Bangladesh.

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UN Agencies Agree to Help in Return of Rohingya to Myanmar

Myanmar’s government said it reached an agreement on Thursday with two U.N. agencies for their help in the return of refugees who fled violence in western Rakhine state.

About 700,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims have fled to squalid camps in neighboring Bangladesh since last August, when Myanmar’s army led a brutal crackdown following insurgent attacks on security posts.

Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed in November to begin repatriating the Rohingya, but the refugees expressed concern that they would be forced to return and would face unsafe conditions in Myanmar if the process is not monitored by international aid groups.

The government said in a statement that it initialed a memorandum of understanding with the U.N. Development Program and the U.N. refugee agency for their assistance so that verified displaced people “can return voluntarily in safety and dignity.”

The U.N. said in a separate statement that conditions in Myanmar are not yet appropriate for the voluntary return of the Rohingya, but that the agreement would support government efforts to improve the situation.

It said the agreement, which is expected to be formally signed within a week, will provide a framework for the two agencies to be given access to Rakhine state, which has not been allowed since the violence broke out in August.

It said that will allow the refugee agency to assess the situation, carry out protection activities, and provide information to refugees about conditions in their home areas so that they can better decide whether they want to return.

Myanmar’s security forces have been accused of rape, killing, torture and the burning of the homes of Rohingya villagers. The United Nations and the United States have described the army crackdown as “ethnic cleansing.”

Myanmar has said it will only allow refugees with identity documents – which most Rohingya lack – to return.

Rohingya Muslims face official and social discrimination in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, which denies most of them citizenship and basic rights because they are considered immigrants from Bangladesh.

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