OPATOVAC, Croatia/BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia banned Croatian cargo traffic and goods on Wednesday in a bitter row over the flow of migrants across their joint border, plunging relations to their lowest ebb since the overthrow of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.
Serbia imposed the embargo in retaliation for border restrictions levied by European Union member Croatia, which has hit out at its eastern neighbour for directing the flow of migrants through the Balkan peninsula over their joint border.
Zagreb had banned all trucks but those carrying perishable goods from entering from Serbia and shut seven of eight road border crossings, saying Serbia should direct the migrants to Hungary and Romania too.
As a midnight deadline set by Serbia for Croatia to lift the blockade expired, Belgrade said it was left with no choice but to “introduce measures to protect its statehood.”
“From this moment, the Serbian police will not allow the entry through any border crossing any cargo vehicle registered in Croatia nor any truck carrying goods made in Croatia,” Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic told reporters on the Serbian-Croatian border.
“We are ready to talk to reach an agreement even tonight,” he said.
The dispute is now the most serious in the 15 years since the ouster of Milosevic, who presided over Belgrade’s backing for Serb rebels in Croatia during a 1991-95 war after Zagreb declared independence from socialist Yugoslavia.
The two countries began rebuilding relations after Milosevic’s popular overthrow, though they often exchange harsh words. Croatia become the EU’s newest member in 2013, and Serbia wants one day to follow suit.
Stefanovic said Serbia had other measures in its arsenal that it might apply, without giving details.
More than 40,000 migrants, many of them Syrian refugees, have entered Croatia from Serbia since Tuesday last week, when Hungary barred their entry to the EU by sealing its southern border with Serbia with a metal fence.
They are being bussed by Serbia directly to the Croatian border, having entered Serbia from Macedonia, and trekking through fields beyond the official border crossings.
Croatia has said it cannot cope with the sheer numbers, and that Serbia should send them to Hungary through their main official border point at Horgos, and also to Romania.
Croatia is sending migrants north across its own border with Hungary, which in turn sends them to Austria. But Zagreb is struggling to keep pace with the influx, leading to desperate and sometimes angry scenes at over-crowded camps and train stations.
Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic, in Brussels at a summit of EU leaders on the migration crisis, had already indicated he would not bow to the Serbian deadline.
“Until I see the Budapest-Belgrade axis stop burdening Croatia with refugees, I will remain convinced that they are doing something behind our back,” he told reporters.
“I will remain so convinced until Serbia starts sending people to Hungary too, and not just to Croatia.”
Additional reporting by Zoran Radosavljevic in Zagreb and Matt Robinson in Belgrade; Editing by Toni Reinhold