ZAGREB, Croatia -- Croatian authorities on Friday acknowledged for the first time that police were involved in violent pushbacks of migrants after a video showed uniformed men with batons beating people trying to enter the European Union country from Bosnia.
The head of police, Nikola Milina, said three members of an intervention unit have been removed from duty and are facing further disciplinary procedures. Milina told reporters: “It is our duty to get to the bottom of this.”
The announcement came two days after the publication of video footage filmed during an 8-month long collaborative investigation between journalists at different European news organizations, spearheaded by the non-profit group Lighthouse Reports.
Human rights organizations have for years been accusing Croatia’s police of brutality and illegal pushbacks of migrants to Bosnia, which Croatia has consistently denied.
The latest footage showed uniformed men in balaclavas beating groups of migrants at a porous segment of the EU member country’s 1,000-kilometre (620-mile) border with Bosnia.
Participants involved in the investigative project on the border included journalists from German ARD public broadcaster and Der Spiegel news website, French Liberation daily and the Swiss SRF broadcaster.
The group also reported alleged border pushbacks by Romanian police and Greek coast guard units. Greece’s migration minister denied the allegations. There was no immediate response from Romania.
Bosnia, which has still not fully recovered from its brutal 1992-95 war, became a bottleneck for thousands of Europe-bound migrants from the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa several years ago when other nations closed their borders to block migration paths through the Balkans.
Upon entering Bosnia, most migrants walk northwest to the border with Croatia, one of the last gateways to central and northern Europe.
Milina insisted that the footage showed an isolated incident.
“We don't want any individual case to influence the praise that Croatian police have received for protecting the outer borders of the EU, as well as other duties,” he said.
Croatian Interior Minister Davor Bozinovic also described the incident as “unacceptable behavior” that will be sanctioned.
Thousands of migrants remain stuck in Bosnia and elsewhere in the Balkans while trying to reach Western Europe. Bosnian police said on Friday that 295 migrants have been returned from Croatia to Bosnia in the past month, some with injuries and in need of medical attention.
Klaas Van Dijken of Lighthouse Reports told the Associated Press in a telephone interview Thursday that from February to September this year, reporters filmed 11 alleged pushbacks in Croatia, including drone footage of a police officer covering his face with a balaclava before forcing at least 15 people over the border to Bosnia.
EU and Council of Europe officials have described the published footage as “shocking.”
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