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Libyans Arrested at the Serbian-Croatian Border

5 MINS READMay 23, 2011 | 19:49 GMT
MAURO SEMINARA/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
Two Libyan citizens, along with four Afghan nationals, were arrested May 19 at the Serbian-Croatian border. The presence of Libyans in the Balkans could indicate that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is sending operatives to Serbia and Croatia — countries with which Libya has had mutually beneficial military ties — to acquire military equipment or to recruit mercenaries. However, the most likely explanation for the Libyans' presence in the Balkans is the existence of another route for North African migrants seeking to enter the European Union.
Croatian police arrested four Afghan citizens and two Libyan citizens May 19 at the Serbia-Croatia border near the town of Vukovar. The police said the six individuals would be expelled from Croatia to Serbia and banned from entering the country for a year. The incident piqued STRATFOR's interest for two reasons. First, Serbia and Croatia have maintained a mutually beneficial military relationship with Libya dating back to the Cold War, and it would make sense for Tripoli to want to maintain those links during an arms embargo. Second, the experienced war veterans in the Balkans could be useful mercenary recruits for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's efforts to stay in power and eventually retake the eastern part of Libya held by rebels. However, rather than being evidentiary of Libyan intelligence activities in the Balkans, the incident most likely indicates the existence of a migration route into the European Union that uses the general lack of law enforcement in Albania and Kosovo as a door for illegal immigrants. The Libyans' presence in the Balkans is interesting because of the relationship that Yugoslavia and its successor states maintained with the Gadhafi regime. Though Belgrade's arms exports to Libya had been eclipsed by other weapons manufacturers as Yugoslavia's arms industry collapsed following the civil wars in the Balkans, a substantial portion of the Libyan air force is still Yugoslav-made; the country still has 90 G-2 Galeb Trainer/Fighters of unknown quality and condition. Serbia has also maintained other economic links with the Gadhafi regime as a remnant of its years in the Non-Aligned Movement, as evidenced by the $400 million deal to build a military hospital in the country, a significant contract for an economy the size of Serbia's. There are a number of reasons Libyan operatives would want a presence in the Balkans. They could be there to acquire arms or replacement parts for Yugoslav-built jets, or they could try to recruit volunteers for military operations in the country. Numerous media outlets reported that Serbian mercenaries were working for Gadhafi at the outset of the Libyan conflict, reports likely spurred by Libyan rebels to enhance the grassroots nature of their campaign. However, STRATFOR has been unable to confirm the presence of any Balkan mercenaries in Libya via several sources either in Libya or recently returned from Libya. A third, more likely reason is that the Libyan nationals arrested at the Croatian-Serbian border were simply migrants attempting to enter the European Union via a route that most likely goes from Albania through Kosovo into Serbia and on toward either Hungary or Croatia into Slovenia. The recent media focus on the migration routes of North African migrants has concentrated on the use of boats to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa, off the Sicilian coast. Rome has said that about 12,500 migrants fleeing the Libyan conflict have arrived in Italy since the end of March, along with another 24,000 migrants from Tunisia. Italy complained vociferously that the rest of the European Union was not helping it deal with the influx of the migrants and ultimately decided to issue some of the migrants temporary Italian — and therefore EU — residency permits so that they could travel to the rest of the European Union. This prompted France to put up border checkpoints on the its border with Italy, causing a spat that ultimately led to the adoption of changes to the 25-member Schengen border agreement allowing its participating states to emplace temporary border checkpoints, a controversial issue in Europe. The other entry point that has seen considerable activity recently is the Turkish-Greek border. The Greek police force has recently stated that the influx of migrants via the Turkish-Greek land border has increased to more than 100 per day. The European Union is subsidizing a project to build a fence along the Greek-Turkish border and has dispatched Frontex, the EU border monitoring agency created in 2004, to the area. Turkish smugglers moving slightly fewer than 100 illegal migrants over the border fired on four Greek border guards and two German Frontex personnel May 20, marking a level of violence theretofore unseen at this border. Italian and Greek border troubles, however, are not new. Both Italy and Greece are members of the Schengen zone, rendering them natural entry points. The idea is that once an immigrant reaches the Schengen zone, he or she can travel to the rest of Europe relatively unimpeded. However, the presence of Libyans in Serbia illustrates that there is a potential third route that crosses the Mediterranean Sea to Albania and runs across the Albanian-Kosovar border, which is relatively nonexistent, into Serbia. From there, migrants can either attempt to enter the Schengen zone through Hungary or from Croatia into Slovenia. On the whole, this does not bode well for Serbia, which joined the Schengen zone's White List in January 2010, allowing holders of Serbian passports to enter the Schengen zone without visas. Belgrade is already close to losing its status on the White List because a number of its citizens, mostly ethnic Albanians and Roma, are using the visa-free travel to enter the European Union and ask for asylum. The emergence of a new migration route via Serbia, aside from further threatening Belgrade's place on the Schengen White List, would also illustrate the difficulties Europe faces in plugging the holes on its borders, with illegal immigration flows continually searching for weak spots such as Albania and Kosovo.

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