A German mayoral candidate active in helping refugees was seriously wounded on Saturday in what police described as a stabbing with a “racist political” motive, heaping further pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel over the migrant crisis.
The German leader expressed her “shock” over the attack which took place in the western city of Cologne and left mayoral hopeful Henriette Reker with serious neck wounds.
The incident took place in an atmosphere of growing tension in Germany where Merkel’s open-door policy towards Syrian refugees has faced a backlash from her conservative allies and spawned a growing number of increasingly vocal protests by the far-right.
So far this year, more than 630,000 people fleeing war and misery in the Middle East and Africa have landed on Europe’s shores, testing the limits of the continent’s generosity.
Most have headed for Germany which so far this year has taken in more than 575,000 asylum seekers, with the number seen rising to as many as a million by the year’s end, presenting the German chancellor with her greatest domestic political challenge since taking power nearly a decade ago.
Henriette Reker, an independent close to Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) who was responsible for handling refugee issues in Cologne, suffered serious stab wounds to the neck when she was attacked while manning a party information stand in the city.
Four other people were also injured, one of them seriously, with regional regional police chief Wolfgang Albers saying it was a “political act”.
The attacker, a 44-year-old unemployed man, was arrested at the scene, telling police he had “a racist motivation for committing this act,” Cologne police official Norbert Wagner said at a news conference.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas said the attack on Reker, a leading candidate in Sunday’s election for mayor of Cologne, condemned the attack as “an unimaginable and abominable act”, while regional president Annelore Kraft described it as an “assault on democracy”.
Reker is seen as standing a good chance of securing the mayorship in Germany’s fourth-largest city, which has 980,000 inhabitants.
– Hungary out, Slovenia in –
Hailed as “Mama Merkel” by asylum seekers, Merkel’s approach has helped mobilise thousands of volunteers to join in the country’s biggest post-war refugee relief effort.
But it has not been without cost, sparking far-right protests at home and a backlash within her conservative bloc, as well as a few well-aimed barbs from regional peers, such as Hungary’s hawkish premier Victor Orban.
Meanwhile, the flood of people seeking to reach Germany showed no sign of letting up with thousands of migrants forced to seek a new route to northern Europe after Hungary shut its eastern border with Croatia overnight.
Croatia promptly began diverting the tide of newcomers towards its northwestern border, opening up a new route through Slovenia.
The first busloads carrying some 600 people crossed Croatia’s southwestern frontier into Slovenia on Saturday with more than 2,000 expected to follow suit throughout the day, opening up a new westerly route.
The move came as much-hyped European Union efforts to reach a deal with Turkey ran into difficulties, with Ankara pouring cold water on Brussels’ efforts to tackle the crisis which has seen some 600,000 mostly Syrian refugees pouring into the bloc this year.
Merkel, who has taken a leading role in effort to resolve the migrant crisis, pushing for a fairer distribution of people across the 28-member bloc, was to travel to Istanbul on Sunday for talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who has heaped scorn on Europe’s efforts to date.
As the diplomatic wrangling continued, another 12 people drowned on Saturday when their wooden boat sank off the Turkish coast as they were trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos, Turkey’s Anatolia news agency reported.
– ‘Running smoothly’ –
Croatia on Saturday said it was expecting to transport at least 2,400 migrants to the border with Slovenia.
During the morning, six buses brought 600 migrants to the border crossings of Gruskovje and Petisovci, while a train carrying 1,800 more people was due to arrive in the northern town of Cakovek.
Of the 300 people who arrived at Petisovci, most were young men, an AFP correspondent said, adding there was no armed police presence and the atmosphere appeared calm and joyful.
At the site, a large white tent had been set up to allow the Slovenian authorities carry out identity checks, before taking the migrants to one of several refugee camps, with Caroline van Buren, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, saying things were running “really smoothly”.
“Unlike other countries, Slovenia had time to prepare… It’s not perfect, but things are moving,” she said.
The numbers expected to enter Slovenia would be a first for the country which only saw around 3,500 migrants arrive over the past month after it reinforced border controls in mid-September.
Slovenia has said it could handle up to 8,000 refugees crossing through on their way to Austria, which has also reinforced its border ahead of the anticipated rise in the numbers. A first group of around 100 migrants made the crossing from Slovenia on Saturday, Austrian officials said.
Croatia has also warned that if Slovenia and Germany closed their borders, Croatia would be forced to do the same.