Migrants, police clash again on Greek-Turkish border

Clashes between Greek riot police and migrants attempting to cross the border from Turkey erupted anew Friday as European Union foreign ministers held an emergency meeting to discuss the situation on the Turkey-Greece border and in Syria, where Turkish troops are fighting.

EU meets, foreign ministers seem to differ on giving Turkey more aid to accommodate migrants

Greek riot police officers stand guard as tear gas is fired near Turkey's Pazarkule border crossing, in Kastanies, Greece, on Friday. (Florion Goga/REUTERS)

The latest:

  • EU ministers meet in Croatia to discuss recent pressure on Greece-Turkey border.
  • Irish minister calls on Greek police to use restraint after tear gas fired again.
  • EU implores migrants, many from non-Syria countries, to not head to Greece border.
  • Relative calm reported by Syria war monitors after Russia, Turkey make deal.
  • Turkey's Erdogan angered by Greece PM, says he doesn't want to appear in 'same frame' with him.

Clashes between Greek riot police and migrants attempting to cross the border from Turkey erupted anew Friday as European Union foreign ministers held an emergency meeting to discuss the situation on the Turkey-Greece border and in Syria, where Turkish troops are fighting.

Greek riot-control police used tear gas and a water cannon to drive back people trying to cross the land border in the morning. Turkish authorities fired volleys of tear gas onto the Greek side of the frontier.

Thousands of refugees and other migrants have been trying to get into Greece through the country's eastern land and sea borders over the past week, after Turkey declared its previously guarded borders with Europe were open.

Turkey has said it is deploying 1,000 special forces police on its side of the border to prevent Greek authorities from pushing back migrants who manage to cross into Greece.

Many asylum seekers have been camping out near the border on the Turkish side, hoping to cross despite Greek insistence that its border is closed. Reporters were being kept away from the border area on the Turkish side, but saw at least one bus full of people leaving the area Friday morning. It was unclear where the bus was headed.

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Mohammad Omid, an Afghan who has been at the border for five days with his wife, said Turkish police told him to go to there.

"We don't know what is happening. We are like toys to them," he said in the border town of Edirne. "We are like a ball to them. Everyone passes us to this side and the other side. I don't know what will happen to us."

After months of threats, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country would no longer be the gatekeeper for Europe. He has demanded Europe shoulder more of the burden of caring for refugees, although the EU insists it is abiding by a deal in which it disbursed billions of euros for care in return for Turkey keeping the refugees on its soil.

Syrian skies free of warplanes

Erdogan's move to open the border came amid a Syrian government offensive in Syria's northwestern Idlib province, where Turkish troops are fighting. The Russia-backed offensive has killed dozens of Turkish troops and sent nearly a million Syrian civilians toward Turkey's sealed border.

A ceasefire in Idlib brokered by Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday went into effect at midnight. Opposition activists and a war monitor reported a complete absence of Russian and Syrian government warplanes in the skies of Idlib and a relative calm in the area. It was not clear whether the agreement would also affect the situation on the Turkish-Greek border.

Turkey currently hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, and Erdogan had frequently threatened to open Turkey's borders to Europe. He maintains the EU has not upheld its end of a more than 6 billion-euro deal designed to stem the flow of migrants into Europe, after more than a million people entered the EU in 2015.

EU foreign ministers met for an emergency meeting in Zagreb, Croatia on Friday to discuss Syria and the immigration pressure at the Greek border.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the EU's foreign ministers would discuss more funds for Turkey. He wouldn't go into details or say how many countries support or oppose the idea.

"Turkey is having a big burden, four million people, we have to understand that," Borrell said. "But at the same time we cannot accept migrants being used as a source of pressure."

Since the end of February, thousands of migrants have headed to points along the Greece border, as Turkey has turned away from an agreement struck with the European Union in 2016. (CBC)

But he also implored migrants not to head to the Greece border.

"The news about the alleged openness [of the border] is false and people should not try to move there," he said. "If we want to avoid critical situations, we have to know the truth. Let's stop this game."

Migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Africa are camped out along a stretch of the border.

Greece, Turkey trade accusations

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz accused Turkey of carrying out an "organized attack on Greece," while Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said he opposed more aid for Turkey, criticizing the "cynical way" Erdogan was using refugees.

"We should not react to the pressure that Turkey is exerting on us by agreeing to more money under pressure," said Blok.

Migrants gather near the village of Skala Sikamias after crossing part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the island of Lesbos, Greece. (Costas Baltas/Reuters)

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said the situation on the borders would also be discussed at the meeting.

"We are facing a mass movement of migrants towards the borders of Greece and Europe," he said as he arrived for the talks. "Migrants who have been living in Turkey for years. We have clear proof that this population movement has been created and orchestrated by Turkey."

'We've got to treat people as human beings'

Speaking to a group of journalists on his return from Moscow, Erdogan signalled that there would be no change to Turkey's policy.

"We don't have time to discuss with Greece whether the gates which we opened are now closed. That business is over," Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency quoted Erdogan as saying. "Our gates are open. The refugees will go as far as they can. We are not forcing them to leave."

Migrants who arrived the previous day on a dinghy after crossing part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey rest on a beach near the Greek village of Skala Sikamias, on the island of Lesbos. (Costas Baltas/Reuters)

Erdogan also accused Greece of cruelty in its treatment of the migrants and told reporters he refused to attend a possible meeting in Bulgaria to discuss the migration issue. He said he did not want to appear "in the same frame" as the Greek prime minister.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the EU should rally around Greece.

"The European Union needs to act collectively, we cannot allow one member state or two member states to carry an unfair burden," he said as he arrived for the Zagreb meeting.

However, he said it was unacceptable for Greek police to fire rubber bullets at migrants.

"We've got to treat people as human beings," he said. "While I accept there are pressures on security forces and police officers on the border there because there has been panic… I think we have to act with restraint."

With files from Reuters