A migrant was in a critical condition in hospital on Monday after being shot by police in a remote mountainous area in northern Croatia.
He was one of a group of 15 illegal immigrants intercepted while apparently trying to reach the nearby Slovenian border.
An investigation has begun into the circumstances of shooting, which happened on Saturday, but aid groups have repeatedly accused Croatian authorities of mistreating migrants on the route from the Middle East and central Asia towards EU states.
It also comes as Croatia prepares to enter the EU’s visa-free Schengen zone — a move that requires compliance with EU standards on border controls and human rights.
The victim, who has not been identified, underwent emergency surgery for “multiple life-threatening thorax and abdominal injuries,” Vlasta Orlic Karbic, anesthesiologist at Rijeka-KBC hospital told the Dnevnik news site.
Croatian Interior Minister Davor Bozinovic told reporters in Rijeka that the shooting happened near the Tuhobic mountain, in a forested area around 20km from the Slovenian border and at least 5km from the nearest vehicle-accessible track.
Police were “preventing the passage of a group which most probably wanted to reach Slovenia,” he said.
“It is too early to talk about the results of the investigation,” he added: “What I could possibly say at this point is that it has not been established that the use of the firearm was directed at a specific person, with the intention of acting against a person.”
The migrant was carried by police from the scene of the shooting to the nearest track reachable by an ambulance, Dnevnik reported, citing unofficial information.
— Lydia Gall (@LydsG) November 18, 2019
Croatia, which wants to join the EU’s border-free Schengen area, has to convince Brussels that it is able to effectively manage the bloc’s external border, a particularly sensitive issue since Europe’s 2015 migrant crisis.
Neighbouring Bosnia, which has become a migrant hot-spot since 2018, has repeatedly accused Croatia of returning migrants to Bosnia even when they are found deep in its territory. Many migrants have been complaining of brutality of Croatian police officers, allegations that Croatia has dismissed.
Lydia Gall, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, called on European authorities to investigate.
“This is an absolutely shocking and unacceptable case,” she told Euronews. “For years, we have highlighted incidences of abuse of migrants by Croatian authorities and they have again and again denied the accusations and now they have admitted using a firearm.
“I hope that this resonates on a European level, especially right now while Croatia is half-in the Schengen zone, and that the EU makes its own efforts to find out what happened here.”