KASTANIES, Greece – Turkish officials repeated their assertions that a refugee on the border with Greece was killed when Greek forces fired tear gas and stun grenades to keep out hordes who gathered there trying to cross, Greek officials responding it was fake news and disinformation.
Some 10,000 refugees and migrants were massed at the border after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would no longer abide by an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union.
That came after the deaths of 33 Turkish soldiers in an area of Syria his country invaded with Turkey fearing it could another surge adding to more than 3.2 million who fled the Syrian civil war and went to Turkey as a jumping-off point trying to reach the European Union which closed its borders to them, dumping the problem largely on Greece.
Turkish authorities said one person was killed on March 3 and five wounded after Greek police and border guards opened fire on the migrants making a push to cross the border, which Greek officials vehemently denied. No proof was offered by either side.
Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said Turkey was determined to carry the migrant’s death to the European Court of Human Rights despite his country having one of the world’s worst records for human rights and jailing dozens of journalists.
“Our Foreign Ministry will make it an international issue,” he told Turkish broadcaster CNN-Turk in an interview a day before he traveled to the border area. He also claimed that more than 130,000 migrants had crossed into Greece since Feb. 27, when Turkey made good on a threat to open its borders and allow migrants and refugees to head for Europe. Around 20-25% of those who reached Greece were Syrian nationals, Soylu said.
There was no evidence to support the claim that as many had crossed into Greece. Greek authorities said that from March 2-3, they blocked 6,955 attempts to cross the Greek-Turkish land border, and arrested 24 people, mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan. From Feb. 29-March 4, Greek authorities said there had been 34,778 attempts to cross the border, and 244 people had been arrested after crossing.
Erdogan’s decision to open its gateways to Europe has raised concerns within the EU, which was a foreign ministers’ meeting in Zagreb, Croatia but the bloc has been reluctant to get tough on Erdogan even now although that stance didn’t keep him from unleashing refugees.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement before heading to the meeting that it was important that Greece not be left alone and that a “united European answer” be found for the situation on the Turkish-Greek border.
“As always, the weakest always pay the highest price for the current condition. Therefore, we must use our possibilities to quickly help especially unprotected children,” Maas said.
He added: “For us it’s clear: the EU must continue to financially and increasingly support the efforts of Turkey when it comes to the admission of refugees and migrants.”
Greece has also come under migration pressure from the sea, with Greek islands, which are a short distance from Turkey, seeing even more new arrivals. A 7-year-old Syrian boy died when the dinghy he was in capsized off the coast of the Greek island of Lesbos.
Soylu said he had received instructions from Erdogan for Turkish authorities to continue to prevent migrants from crossing by sea to avert drownings but other reports said the Turkish Coast Guard was making no attempt to stop it.Turkey’s announcement that its border to Europe was open 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 but other reports said Syrians weren’t among those who were at the border with Greece.
Greece’s 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 while also shutting down its borders.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)