Clashes erupt on Greece-Turkey border as migrants seek entry

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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)

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KASTANIES, Greece (AP) — Greek authorities were firing 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.

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

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 and scenes of chaos at the land border, where thousands of migrants and refugees have gathered.

Hundreds more 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.

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.

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.

Zhuravlev said Turkish authorities were “herding” about 130,000 refugees, who were in temporary camps near the Turkey-Syria border, toward the border with Greece. He said most were not from Syria.

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.

“Greece treats refugees horribly and then turns around to blame Turkey,” Fahrettin Altun, the communications director of Turkey’s presidency, tweeted Tuesday night. “This is the kind of double standards and hypocrisy we have gotten used to over the years. The country that just suspended temporary protection and tear gassed migrations has no moral authority to speak of!”

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, European Council head Charles Michel was scheduled to meet with Erdogan in Ankara Wednesday, while EU Vice President Josep Borrell and Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarcic will hold talks with Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay.

Top EU officials, including Michel and European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen, visited the Greek border area Tuesday along with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who said Turkey “has systematically encouraged and assisted tens of thousands of refugees and migrants to illegally enter Greece.”

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.

Von der Leyen expressed support for Greece, noting the border wasn’t just a national one but an external border of the EU. Those trying to cross into Greece had ”been lured by false promises into this desperate situation,” she said.

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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Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Elena Becatoros in Athens, contributed to this report.

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