World

Migrant deaths reported near Greece as EU grapples with new Syrian war migrant flows

The European Union's chief executive, Ursula von der Leyen, expresses sympathy with Turkey over the conflict in Syria but says it's not permissible for Ankara to let refugees and migrants on its territory cross into Europe as reports indicate at least two migrants have died trying to reach Greece.

Bellicose warnings from Moscow and Ankara come amid intense fighting in Idlib, Syria

Greeks living on the island of Lesbos have shown great compassion toward refugees in the past. says Boris Cheshirkov, a UN refugee agency spokesperson. 4:47

A child died after being pulled from the sea when a boat capsized on Monday off the Greek island of Lesbos, Greek officials said, the first reported fatality since Turkey opened its border last week to let migrants reach Europe.

Separately, two Turkish security sources told Reuters a Syrian migrant had died from injuries on Monday after Greek security forces intervened to prevent migrants crossing from Turkey into Greece, but Athens branded the claim "fake news."

The Greek coast guard said the boat that capsized off Lesbos had been escorted there by a Turkish vessel. Forty-six people were rescued, and two children taken to hospital, one of whom could not be revived.

More than 10,000 migrants, mostly from Syria, but also other Middle Eastern states and Afghanistan, have reached Turkey's land borders with EU states Greece and Bulgaria since Ankara said last Thursday it would stop keeping them on its territory.

Greek and Turkish police fired tear gas into crowds caught between the fences in no-man's land over the weekend.

Turkish police direct migrants Monday who are trying to reach the border crossing at the Pazarakule gate near Edirne, at the Turkish-Greek border. Thousands of migrants and refugees massed at Turkey's western frontier, trying to enter Greece by land and sea after Turkey said its borders were open to those hoping to head to Europe. (Darko Bandic/The Associated Press)

Farther south, at least 1,000 migrants have reached Greece's eastern Aegean islands since Sunday morning, Greek police say.

"This is an invasion," Development Minister Adonis Georgiadis told Skai TV on Monday.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said on Sunday his country would not be accepting any new asylum requests for a month after two days of clashes between border police and thousands of people seeking to enter.

The United Nations refugee agency said on Monday that Greece had no right to stop accepting asylum applications.

"All states have a right to control their borders and manage irregular movements, but at the same time should refrain from the use of excessive or disproportionate force and maintain systems for handling asylum requests in an orderly manner," the UNHCR said in a statement.

The UN agency said neither international nor EU law provided "any legal basis for the suspension of the reception of asylum applications."

European Union interior ministers will hold a special meeting Wednesday to discuss the situation at the bloc's border with Turkey, and specifically how they can support Greece and Bulgaria as they patrol their frontiers.

A Greek plainclothes police officer directs migrants who were able to cross the border from Turkey to board a vehicle Monday in Kastanies, Greece. (Alexandros Avramidis/Reuters)

Turkey had previously kept a lid on migration from the Middle East into Europe since 2016 in exchange for funds to help refugees.

Ursula von der Leyen, EU chief executive, said Monday it was impermissible for Ankara to let refugees and migrants on its territory cross into Europe.

"I acknowledge that Turkey is in a difficult situation with regards to the refugees and the migrants. But what we see now cannot be an answer or solution," von der Leyen told a news conference.

The EU has also been bitterly divided on how to share out the burden of caring for refugees and migrants reaching its territory since a 2015-26 spike in arrivals strained the EU's security and welfare services.

"We have to stand by Greece and fight together Erdogan's blackmail. Europe needs to do this by finally setting up the comprehensive European migration policy we already called for since spring 2015," liberal EU lawmaker Guy Verhofstadt said.

"Today Greece suffers the consequences; tomorrow the rest of the union."

WATCH | Tension at the border in Kastanies, Greece:

Greece suspends asylum applications to stop entry of thousands who are now on the move. 0:56

The EU's options include offering more funds for more than three million refugees Turkey hosts, stepping up humanitarian aid inside Syria and supporting the frontline members Greece and Bulgaria in policing the bloc's external border.

Fighting in northwestern Syria has displaced a million civilians since December in what the United Nations says could be the worst humanitarian crisis of the nine-year war. Russian-backed Syrian government forces have launched a bid to capture the last swathe of Syria still held by rebels.

Russia warns Turkey after Syrian planes downed

Russia has been providing air support to Assad's forces in Idlib, the last rebel-head region in the country. Turkey supports anti-Assad rebels, but diplomatic efforts between the country and Russia to avoid all-out fighting have crumbled in recent weeks.

The Kremlin said Turkey should take note of a warning issued by the Russian Defence Ministry overnight, which said it couldn't guarantee the safety of Turkish aircraft after Turkey shot down two Syrian war planes and struck a military airport in recent fighting.

Turkey-backed opposition fighters transport fellow fighters wounded in fighting with Syrian government forces and their allies on Sunday in Sarmin, south of Idlib, Syria. Fighting on the ground in Idlib continued Monday, with heavy clashes between Syrian government forces and Turkish-backed fighters. (The Associated Press)

Moscow and Ankara have traded blame for the deteriorating situation since last week, when at least 33 Turkish troops were killed in an airstrike, the worst attack on the Turkish military in nearly 30 years.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov confirmed on Monday that President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan would hold talks on Syria in Moscow on Thursday. But Peskov said Russia was as committed as ever to the Syrian government's cause.

Meanwhile, Erdogan demanded on Monday that Syrian government forces in northwest Syria withdraw to lines determined by Turkey, adding that their losses in attacks by Turkey and rebel forces were just beginning.

"If they do not withdraw to the lines Turkey has determined as soon as possible, they will not have a head left on their shoulders," Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.

Russia, Turkey culpable in deadly incidents — UN

The latest developments occurred as a report by the UN commission was released Monday, covering the period from July 2019 to February 2020, found that Russia killed civilians in airstrikes in Syria and rebels allied to Turkey carried out murder and pillage in Kurdish areas, actions investigators said could amount to war crimes by both Moscow and Ankara.

The UN investigators, led by Paulo Pinheiro, called for ensuring accountability for a "multitude of violations."

The report blamed Russia for a strike in the city of Maarat al-Numan on July 22, when at least 43 civilians were killed. Weeks later, an attack on the Haas compound for displaced killed at least 20 people, including eight women and six children, and injured 40 others, the report said.

"Based on the evidence available, including witness testimonies, video footage, data imagery as well as reports by flight spotters, flight communication intercepts and early warning observation reports, the Commission has reasonable grounds to believe that a Russian aircraft participated in each incident described above," it said.

The report also called on Turkey to investigate whether it carried out in an airstrike on a civilian convoy near Ras al Ain that killed 11 people last October. Turkey has denied a role in the strike, which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said was conducted by Turkish aircraft.