Bulgaria detains 125 migrants, sending message to others

SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria said it had detained 125 foreigners in the capital Sofia for illegally crossing into the country without submitting requests for asylum, signaling its determination to tackle an influx that has overwhelmed its neighbors.

Georgi Kostov, secretary general of the interior ministry, said the migrants, detained late on Wednesday night, would be questioned and may be granted refugee status.

Tens of thousands of migrants, most of them fleeing war and hardship in Syria, are trying to reach Hungary through the Balkans from Greece via Bulgaria's neighbors, non-EU Macedonia and Serbia.

Bulgaria has sent troops to help guard those borders and new measures to tackle the migrant crisis, announced by the interior ministry on Wednesday, are to be focused on illegal migrants crossing into the country via Turkey.

It has beefed up its border police, installed cameras and motion censors, and is extending a security fence that will cover 160 km (100 miles) of its border with Turkey.

The country had arrested migrants before, but not as many at a time as announced on Thursday.

Interior Minister Rumyana Bachvarova said Bulgaria was considering opening six more registration centers "to prevent what is happening in Macedonia and Serbia".

Many people fleeing conflict, particularly in Syria or Afghanistan, hope to use the Balkan country as a gateway to a more prosperous life elsewhere in Europe.

About 25,000 people have applied for refugee status in Bulgaria in the past two years, official data shows, as many as in the previous two decades combined.

Bulgaria has also stepped up actions against migrant smugglers, Kostov said, adding that more than 200 Bulgarian citizens had been indicted for smuggling activities this year.

On Tuesday, the Bulgarian authorities made an arrest in connection with 71 dead refugees found in an abandoned refrigeration truck on an Austria highway last Thursday. But they have ruled out the possibility an organized criminal gang smuggling migrants into Austria could be based in Bulgaria.

(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Philippa Fletcher)