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Turkey deploying special forces to border amid migrant surge

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey said Thursday it would deploy special forces along its land border with Greece to prevent Greek authorities from pushing back migrants trying to cross into Europe, after Turkey declared its previously guarded gateways to Europe open.

Thousands of migrants and refugees have tried to cross into Greece from the Turkish land and sea border in the past week. Clashes have been frequent, with Greek police firing tear gas, stun grenades and water cannon to repel thousands of people trying to breach the border. Greek authorities say Turkish police have also fired tear gas at them in an effort to disperse border guards.

Turkey says Greek authorities were also firing live ammunition at the migrants, and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said Wednesday Turkey would make a case in the European Court of Human Rights for a migrant it says was shot dead by Greek authorities on the border. The Greek government has denied any such incident occurred, calling it “fake news.”

Soylu, who visited the border area Thursday, said Turkey would deploy 1,000 special forces along its land border to prevent Greek authorities from pushing back those attempting to cross.

“As of this morning … we are bringing 1,000 fully equipped special forces police (along) the Meric river system to prevent the push backs,” Soylu said. “With the help of Zodiac boats they will (prevent) those who mistreat people.”

Soylu said Greece had tried to push back around 4,900 migrants in violation of international conventions, and accused the European Union and Europe’s border protection agency Frontex of remaining silent.

An estimated 4,000-5,000 people were near the Pazarkule border crossing, opposite the Greek village of Kastanies, and were being prevented from crossing, Soylu said.

“It is a border gate, they are obliged to take them in. They are obliged to take in asylum-seekers,” the minister said.

But he added the migrants were not obliged to use the official border crossing and could cross anywhere along the roughly 200 kilometers (125-mile) long border. Much of the border is demarcated by a river, and many migrants have tried wading, rowing or swimming across it.

“I want to say that there is no rule that says they have to cross from Pazarkule,” Soylu said.

The minister asserted 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. He said around 20-25% of those who reached Greece were Syrians.

There was no evidence to support the claim. Although hundreds of people have managed to cross, most appear to have been caught by Greek authorities. Many have said they have been summarily pushed back into Turkey after being detained.

Greek authorities said that from Saturday morning until Thursday morning, they had thwarted 34,778 attempts to cross the border, and 244 people had been arrested. That includes 6,955 attempts to cross the border in the 24 hours between Wednesday morning and Thursday morning.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to open its gateways to Europe has raised concerns within the European Union, which was holding a foreign ministers’ meeting in Zagreb, Croatia.

His move to open the border to 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.

Erdogan, whose country currently houses more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, had frequently threatened to open Turkey’s borders and send migrants and refugees into 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 crossed into the EU in 2015.

“We are no longer preventing crossings into Greece and Europe,” Soylu said. “Those who come can come, those who can cross can cross.”

“For some nine years, Turkey has shouldered a humanitarian tragedy that the world has ignored,” the minister said.

“I am sad to say that it has shouldered this despite the fact that countries that consider themselves to be civilized have turned their backs.”

Greece’s government has called the situation a direct threat to the country’s national security and has imposed emergency measures to carry out swift deportations and freeze asylum applications for one month — moves which have come under criticism from human rights groups and refugee aid agencies.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement before heading to the foreign ministers’ meeting 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 hundreds heading to Greek islands from the nearby
Turkish coast. A child died when the dinghy he was in capsized off the coast of the Greek island of Lesbos earlier this week.

Soylu, the interior minister, said he had received instructions from Erdogan for Turkish authorities to prevent migrants from crossing by sea to avert drownings.

In past days, Greek authorities have said coast guard notifications to the Turkish coast guard about boats crossing have been met with no reaction, while they say in some cases migrants boats have been escorted to the edge of Turkish territorial waters by Turkish patrol boats. There were no crossings to Greek islands on Wednesday. The weather was particularly bad in the area, with high winds and rough seas.

Elena Becatoros in Athens and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, contributed to this report.

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