Police: 14 migrants killed by train in Macedonia

Migrants using an overland route from Greece through the Balkans to Hungary often use the train tracks as a path to guide them

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Fourteen suspected migrants from Afghanistan and Somalia, walking in the dark along train tracks toward the European Union, were killed by a nighttime express train in a remote river gorge in Macedonia, police said Friday.

The migrants, part of a larger group, had been walking north of the central Macedonian town of Veles around 10:30 p.m. (2030 GMT) Thursday night when a passenger train traveling from the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki to the Serbian capital of Belgrade struck them.

“The train driver tried to stop, but it was too late and the train hit the group of migrants who weren’t able to leave the tracks,” said Nikola Kostov, general manager of Macedonian Railways.

Kostov told The Associated Press that the train driver saw about 100 migrants on the tracks, and spotted them with only 100 meters (yards) and a few seconds before impact. He called the stretch of railway, bounded on one side by the River Vardar and the other by a steep slope, as “dangerous and unapproachable.”

Migrants using an overland route from Greece through the Balkans to Hungary often use the train tracks as a path to guide them. They most commonly walk in darkness - though the dangers of being hit by a train are greater at night - to avoid detection by police. Although considered a safer route than crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy, the Balkans route for migrants still is fraught with danger.

Kostov said Macedonian trains struck and killed 40 migrants last year, when the Balkans route experienced a sudden surge in pedestrian traffic driven by refugees from conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa.

The group had been heading north of the isolated rail station at Rajko Zinziofov. Survivors clambered up the slope or clung to bushes along the river bank, authorities said.

Police detained eight survivors at the scene of the accident. Police spokesman Ivo Kotevski said they would be questioned by prosecutors in Veles. Other survivors are presumed to have fled.

The Veles prosecutor handling the case, Slavica Temelkovski, said those killed were all aged 20 to 30. She had no immediate information on whether they were men or women or their names, but all were expected to be buried in a Muslim graveyard in Veles.

Tens of thousands of migrants and refugees attempt to reach the more prosperous central and western European countries each year by heading from Turkey to nearby Greek islands, then either trying to sneak onto Italy-bound ferries, or heading overland through Macedonia or Albania.

Although short, the sea journey from the Turkish coast is also perilous, with smugglers overloading unseaworthy boats with migrants, and the captain often abandoning the vessel after it enters Greek waters so as to evade arrest. On Monday, a wooden yacht packed with about 90 migrants ran aground on the shore of the Greek island of Rhodes, leaving three people dead, including a young boy.