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Biden meets with Balkan leaders on refugees, threats

Dusan Stojanovic
Associated Press

Zagreb, Croatia — Tensions over a record surge of asylum-seekers and fears that Islamic militants may have infiltrated the flow brought former Balkans rivals together in an urgent summit Wednesday, along with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden’s trip comes amid a heated debate in the U.S. about whether to admit Syrian refugees following the Islamic State group’s attack in Paris that left 130 dead and hundreds wounded. At least two of the militants involved in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks had passed through Greece, apparently posing as asylum-seekers.

In Washington, the House of Representatives has passed laws tightening vetting for refugees from Syria and Iraq, although the White House contends the additional restrictions would effectively block people from those countries.

Biden’s appearance indicates renewed U.S. interest in the region, which was engulfed in a bloody civil war in the 1990s as the former Yugoslavia broke up. The summit includes former Yugoslav states and Albania.

“The United States of America, and me in particular speaking for the president of the United States, has had an overwhelming interest in this region for the last 25 years,” Biden said after meeting the Slovenian president ahead of the summit in the Croatian capital of Zagreb.

The refugee crisis is stoking tensions among the countries on the migrant corridor — Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia.

“The summit comes at the right time, as security concerns have increased due to recent events,” Slovenian President Borut Pahor said. “Politicians now have the responsibility to take measures for securing peace and security in the region.”

Managing the massive refugee flow has proved a major political and security challenge for the countries on the migrant route — and Europe’s inability to agree on a common policy toward the surge has made the situation worse.

Slovenia wants to limit the flow of people talking the Balkans route — from Greece through the Balkans up to Germany — so it can re-establish the normal functioning of Europe’s passport-free Schengen border zone. Slovenia has started to erect a razor wire fence along its border with Croatia to aid these efforts, but Pahor said getting an agreement with its southern neighbor should be its main priority.

The Balkan nations now say they will only let in people fleeing conflicts, such those from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and not people considered economic migrants.

Biden said it’s “quite an accomplishment” that the region’s former war foes are now sitting at the same table and discussing common challenges.

“I have been working on this for the past 25 years,” Biden said, joking that he was last in the region during the rule of former Yugoslav Communist Leader Josip Broz Tito, who died in 1980, and Croatia’s first President Franjo Tudjman, who died in 1999.

“That’s how old I am,” Biden, 73, said.