Clashes erupt on Greece-Turkey border as migrants seek entry

International

Migrants walk in Edirne, Turkey, near Turkish-Greek border on Wednesday, March 4, 2020. Facing a potential wave of nearly a million people fleeing fighting in northern Syria, Turkey has thrown open its borders with Greece to thousands of refugees and other migrants trying to enter Europe, and has threatened to send “millions” more. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

KASTANIES, Greece (AP) — Greek authorities fired tear gas and stun grenades Wednesday morning to repulse a push by migrants to cross its land border from Turkey, as pressure continued along its frontier after Turkey said its own border with Europe was open to whoever wanted to cross.

Turkish authorities said one person was killed and five were wounded by fire coming from the Greek side — an assertion the Greek government strongly rejected as “fake news.”

The clashes were near the border village of Kastanies, along a border fence that covers much of the frontier not demarcated by the Evros river.

Turkey made good on a threat to open its borders and send migrants into Europe last week. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s action triggered days of violent clashes at the land border, where thousands of migrants and refugees have gathered.

The office of Ekrem Canalp, governor for the Turkish border province of Edirne, said one migrant was killed and five others wounded after Greek police and border units fired tear gas, blank bullets and live rounds at a group of migrants gathered at an area between the Turkish and Greek gates of Pazarkule and Kastanies.

Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas categorically denied any migrants had been wounded or killed by Greek authorities.

“The Turkish side creates and disperses fake news targeted against Greece. Today they created yet another such falsehood,” he said. “There is no such incident with fire from the Greek authorities,” he said.

During the clashes earlier Wednesday, reporters on the Greek side of the border heard what sounded like gunfire, though it was unclear whether this was live ammunition. A group of people could be seen carrying something which could have been a person between them, and running to the Turkish border post. Shortly afterward, and ambulance was heard leaving.

Reporters on the Turkish side of the border saw at least four ambulances leave the area.

The head of emergency services at Edirne’s Trakya University Hospital, Burak Sayhan, told journalists six people had been admitted to the emergency department Wednesday, including one who was dead on arrival. He said one person had been shot in the head, two had gunshot wounds to their lower and upper extremities and one had a broken nose.

Greece’s sea border with Turkey has also come under pressure. In the past few days, hundreds of people have headed to Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast in dinghies. One child died when the rubber dinghy he was in capsized off the coast of the Greek island of Lesbos earlier this week.

No boat arrivals appeared to be arriving on the islands Wednesday amid gale-force winds and rough seas.

Greece sent a navy ship to the island of Lesbos Wednesday to house more than 400 of the new arrivals. Tension has mounted with some local residents on the island, where the main migrant camp is massively overcrowded.

The government has called the situation a direct threat to Greece’s national security and has imposed emergency measures to carry out swift deportations and freeze asylum applications for one month. Migrants have been reporting being summarily pushed back across the border into Turkey.

The mass movement of migrants and refugees to Greece’s borders, the majority of who appeared to be from Afghanistan, has appeared organized. Buses, minibuses, cars and taxis were organized in Istanbul to ferry people to the border, while some of those who managed to cross have said they were told by Turkish authorities to go to Greece and that the border was open.

Turkey’s announcement that it wouldn’t stop those wishing to cross into Europe came amid a Russia-backed Syrian government offensive into Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, where Turkish troops are fighting.

The offensive has killed dozens of Turkish troops and sent nearly a million Syrian civilians toward Turkey’s sealed border. However, Oleg Zhuravlev, head of the Russian military’s coordination center in Syria, said Tuesday the claims about a humanitarian crisis in Idlib were false.

On Greece’s land border with Turkey, Greek authorities said Turkish police were firing tear gas at the Greek border and the authorities guarding it, and supplied video they said backed their assertion.

Turkey, for its part, accused Greece of mistreating refugees.

In an address to legislators from his ruling party on Wednesday, Erdogan called on Greece and other European nations to respects migrants’ rights. He screened a photograph depicting Greeks who reportedly found refuge in Syria in 1942, saying: “Greeks who try all kinds of methods to keep refugees away from their countries — from drowning them at sea to shooting at them with bullets — should not forget that they may need to be shown the same mercy some day.”

He also accused EU countries of hypocritical behavior, saying they had rushed to Greece’s help “with money, boats and soldiers” to prevent a new influx of migrants but ignored Turkey’s plight concerning 3.7 millions Syrian refugees on its territory.

Meanwhile, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia pledged to help Greece to deal with pressure along its border.

Speaking after meeting his counterparts from the other three countries, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said the situation was serious and the EU must protect its borders.

“We’re ready to help,” Babis said.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said his country was ready to deploy guards at the Greek-Turkish borde, while his Slovak counterpart Peter Pellegrini said the growing number of migrants “poses a security threat not just for Greece.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said that there are some 130,000 migrants on the move that the EU has to stop on its borders, and that “Hungary will take an active role in doing so.”

The four countries have been known for their tough stance against migrants and rejected an EU plan to redistribute refugees in member states.

Meanwhile, European Council head Charles Michel was meeting with Erdogan in Ankara Wednesday, while EU Vice President Josep Borrell and Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarcic were holding talks with Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay.

Speaking to reporters after a meeting with Erdogan, Borell said that the EU delegation asked Turkey “not to encourage the further movement of refugees and migrants toward the EU borders.”

“We had the opportunity to express our understanding of the difficult situation Turkey is currently facing but also stressed that the current developments at the European borders is not leading to any solution,” he said.

Borell also told reporters that Turkish officials’ response was that Turkey was not encouraging people to move but that “they cannot prevent people from doing so.”

Greek authorities said there were about 15,000 people along the Greek-Turkish land border on Wednesday. They said that between Saturday morning and Wednesday morning, they had blocked 27,832 attempts to cross the border, and had arrested a total of 220 people who managed to cross.

Ankara has come under harsh criticism from some European countries.

“The people are being used by President Erdogan as a political football, as weapons and as instruments of pressure on the European Union,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said Tuesday.

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Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Elena Becatoros in Athens and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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