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Europe migrants: Hundreds cross unhindered into Macedonia

Hundreds of migrants crossed unhindered from Greece into Macedonia on Sunday after overwhelmed security forces appeared to abandon a bid to stem their flow through the Balkans to western Europe following days of chaos and confrontation.

Security forces relent, as refugees arrive from Greece

A migrant woman holds a child on the border line with Greece, near the train station of Idomeni, northern Greece, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. About 39,000 people migrants have been registered as passing through Macedonia towards Europe in the past month, twice as many as the month before. (Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press)

Hundreds of migrants crossed unhindered from Greece into Macedonia on Sunday after overwhelmed security forces appeared to abandon a bid to stem their flow through the Balkans to western Europe following days of chaos and confrontation.

Riot police remained, but did little to slow the passage of a steady stream of migrants, many of them refugees from the Syrian war and other conflicts in the Middle East, a Reuters reporter at the scene said.

Macedonia had declared a state of emergency on Thursday and sealed its southern frontier to migrants pouring in at a rate of 2,000 per day en route to Serbia then Hungary and the Europe Union's borderless Schengen zone.

That led to desperate scenes at the border, as men, women and children slept under open skies with little access to food or water.

Saying they would ration access, riot police used tear gas and stun grenades to drive back crowds, but were overwhelmed on Saturday by several thousand who tore through police lines or ran through nearby empty fields.

The state eventually laid on extra trains, and buses arrived from across the country to take the migrants swiftly north to Serbia and the next step of a long journey from the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

'It was very peaceful'

"I watched the news on TV and I was astonished," said Abdullah Bilal, 41, from the devastated Syrian city of Aleppo.

"I thought I would face the same when I arrive here. But it was very peaceful. The Macedonian police told us 'Welcome to Macedonia; trains and buses are waiting for you.'"

Mohannad Albayati, 35, from Damascus, travelling with his wife, two children and three brothers, said: "I passed one step but it is a long road to my destination. With Allah's help I will go to Germany."

The backlog created in Macedonia, which faces criticism from aid agencies for not expanding capacity to receive and process the migrants, reached Serbia overnight, straining the country's own ad hoc reception centres.

"Last night after midnight the first group of 200 people crossed the border," said a Serbian government official who declined to be named.

"So far we have more than 5,000 new arrivals. This is the biggest number in one day so far. They are waiting in long lines as we process them."

Macedonia has accused neighbouring Greece, with which it enjoys a tense relationship, of aiding the migrants' journey north at a pace the Balkan country says it cannot cope with.

Greece has begun chartering boats to take migrants from inundated Greek islands to the mainland, after a record 50,000 hit Greek shores by boat from Turkey in July alone.

EU foreign ministers speak out

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius says the migrant crisis in Macedonia needs to be dealt with without delay.

Speaking in Prague through an interpreter alongside Czech counterpart Lubomir Zaoralek on Sunday, Fabius said foreign and interior ministers of EU member states will likely have to discuss the issue as the number of migrants coming through Macedonia is on the rise.

Fabius says it's not just a problem for Macedonia to solve.

About 45,000 migrants have crossed through Macedonia over the past two months on their way to the EU.

The migrants, many of whom are fleeing bloody conflicts, are travelling through Macedonia and continue to Serbia and then to EU-member Hungary.

Once they enter Hungary, the migrants can travel freely across the borders of most of the 28 EU-member states.

Rescue at sea

Separately, a flotilla of ships, including two vessels from the Italian navy, on Saturday rescued thousands of migrants off the coast of Libya 

The rescue is being called one of the biggest single-day operations of the current migrant crisis. 

The Italian coast guard says 4,400 migrants were rescued. 

Most were plucked from overloaded wooden boats that were in danger of sinking.

The migrants were "crammed into these tiny boats — a lot of them are just glorified rubber dinghies," freelance journalist Megan Williams told CBC News from Rome on Sunday. 

"Some of the fishing vessels carry up to ten times the number of people they're designed for."

The flotilla intercepted 22 different vessels, Williams said. 

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