Chanting "Freedom! Freedom!," angry refugees demanded to be let aboard trains bound for Austria and Germany after Hungary temporarily suspended all rail traffic Tuesday from its main Budapest terminal and brawny police forced hundreds of refugees out of the train station.
Chaos enveloped the city's Keleti station. Forced into the midday sun, scores of refugees protested for hours, waving newly purchased train tickets angrily in the air. The official U-turn surprised observers, given that Hungary over the weekend had started to allow refugees to travel by train to the west without going through asylum procedures.
Janos Lazar, chief of staff to Prime Minister Viktor Orban, told lawmakers that Hungary disagreed with Germany's openness to taking refugees from war-torn Syria. He blamed Germany and what he called other "left-wing governments" in Europe for encouraging the rush of refugees that has staggered Hungary both on its borders at in its capital city.
"The defense of our borders is important, not opening the borders," he said.
But human rights watchdogs called Hungary's actions incoherent and indefensible. They said Hungary's open residential centers for asylum seekers already were too overcrowded to cope, and blocking refugees from using cross-border public transport forces them to cross the border dangerously hidden in smugglers' vehicles.
Hungary rail shutdown came less than a week after Austrian police found 71 refugees dead in a smuggler's abandoned truck, the apparent victims of suffocation.
"If you deny them although they have a paid ticket and you don't let them get on board, you push them right into the hands of smugglers," William Lacy Swing, director general of the International Organization for Migration, told The Associated Press. "So they get into vans and into trucks and they die."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel rejected Hungary's criticism of German asylum policy, saying her country was offering the same welcome to people fleeing war in Syria that all members of the 28-nation EU, including Hungary, should provide.
Speaking in Berlin, Merkel said Germany shouldn't be expected to take the lion's share of Syrian refugees and appealed to EU partners to volunteer to take more. Germany expects to take in 800,000 asylum seekers this year, compared to under 3,000 for fellow EU member Spain.
Merkel said Germany typically did give refugee protection to Syrian citizens fleeing the country's 4-year-old war. "That should come as no surprise. Actually, it should be the same in every European country," she said.
European nations say more than 332,000 refugees have arrived already this year. The front-line border nations of Greece, Italy and Hungary as well as non-EU members Serbia and Macedonia have been overwhelmed by the thousands surging across their border. More than 2,600 refugees have also drowned this year as they cross the Mediterranean in smugglers' often-unseaworthy boats.
Scuffles broke out Tuesday morning at Budapest's Keleti station as hundreds of refugees pushed toward the metal gates where a train was scheduled to leave for Vienna and Munich, only to be blocked by police.
Authorities announced over loudspeakers that all trains would be stopped indefinitely from leaving. Refugees' papers were checked, and those with train tickets but no EU visas were ushered out of the station.
Outside, hundreds who had spent heavily on the tickets chanted "Germany!" and "U.N.!" But Hungary's national rail company, Mav, said it no longer would sell train tickets to customers who could not present proper ID and, where required, visas. It said customers would be allowed to buy only tickets for themselves, not multiple purchases.
Mohammed, a 24-year-old economist from the Syrian city of Aleppo, said the chaos was the worst he has seen since leaving Syria. He had bought a ticket to Munich for 200 euros ($225) after Hungarian police told him Monday night they would be allowed to leave.
Despite showing a valid Syrian passport Tuesday to police guarding the train platform, he was told he could not get on board because he did not have a visa for Germany. He refused to give his last name to an AP reporter citing security concerns about his family still in Aleppo.
"This is crazy," said Baba Mujhse, a Egyptian-Hungarian volunteer inside the train station. He carried a small boy separated from his family in the uproar. He called the decision to block refugees from boarding trains "not a solution to anything."
Hours later, train service was restored for passengers with valid travel documents.
By evening rush hour, the train station was unusually quiet as most commuters found other ways home. The train leaving for Vienna shortly after 6 p.m. was less than one-quarter full.
Outside, more than 300 people continued to protest. One man held a placard made from a pizza box on which he had drawn a picture of a train, a crying child and the plaintive word "Germany!"
Hungary's train crackdown appeared prompted in part by pressure from other European Union nations trying to cope with their own influx of refugees. Austrian police in Vienna said 3,650 migrants arrived Monday from Hungary at the city's Westbahnhof station. Most were heading for Germany.
Orban plans to discuss the refugee crisis Thursday in Brussels with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, EU Council President Donald Tusk and European Parliament President Martin Schulz.
The train tensions were matched by highway delays as Austrian authorities reimposed border controls at main crossings from Hungary. Vehicles at the Hegyeshalom crossing on the main highway from Budapest to Vienna faced 6-kilometer (4-mile) traffic jams at one point Tuesday because of the Austrian inspections.
Tensions flared again Tuesday at Greece's northern border with Macedonia, where about 1,500 migrants are waiting to cross. Fights and scuffles broke out near the Greek village of Idomeni after migrants, mainly from Afghanistan and Pakistan, attempted to rush past Macedonian border police.
Greece's coast guard said it had rescued nearly 1,200 refugees, significantly more than usual, from the sea off its eastern Aegean islands in the past 24 hours.