ANKARA – Turkey is sending elite special operations police to the border to stop Greek officers from driving back people who try to cross over to Europe, Turkish authorities said Thursday.
Thousands of refugees and other asylum-seekers have tried to enter Greece from the land and sea in the week since Turkey declared its previously guarded gateways to Europe open.
Greek police fired tear gas, stun grenades and water cannons to repel people trying to breach the land border from Turkey's side. Turkish authorities allege that Greece's officers also fired live ammunition and killed a migrant, an assertion Greece denied.
Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said Ankara intends to bring a case before the European Court of Human Rights on behalf of the dead migrant.
The Greek government has said no such fatal shooting occurred. Greek authorities also have claimed Turkish police fired tear gas to disperse Greece's border guards.
During a visit to the border area Thursday, Soylu said 1,000 officers from the tactical units of the Police Special Operation Department would be deployed to the Turkey-Greece border to counter the Greek officers working to repel migrants and refugees.
“As of this morning ... we are bringing 1,000 fully equipped special forces police (along) the Meric river system to prevent the pushbacks,” Soylu said. “With the help of Zodiac boats, they will (stop) those who mistreat people.”
Soylu asserted that Greece violated international conventions by using force to stop about 4,900 migrants from getting across the border. He also accused the European Union and Europe's border protection agency Frontex of complicity by remaining silent.
An estimated 4,000-5,000 people near the Pazarkule border crossing, opposite the Greek village of Kastanies, 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-kilometer (125-mile) -long border. Much of the border is demarcated by a river, and many 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 more than 130,000 people had crossed into Greece since Feb. 27, when Turkey made good on a threat to open its borders. He said around 20-25% of those who reached Greece were Syrians.
There was no evidence to support the number. 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 evening, they had thwarted 36,649 attempts to enter Greece and made 252 arrests. The situation on the border Thursday was far quieter than in previous days.
After months of threats, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country no longer agreed to be the gatekeeper for Europe-bound migrants and refugees. His decision and its aftermath on the Greece-Turkey border have alarmed governments in Europe, which is still seeing political fallout from mass migration that started about five years ago.
Erdogan's action 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.
In a move that could ease pressure on Turkey's southern border, Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to a cease-fire in northwest Syria set to take effect at midnight.The two leaders also stressed “the importance of ... the facilitation of safe and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their original places of residence in Syria," according to a joint statement issued at the end of their meeting in Moscow.
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.
The head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Francesco Rocca, visited the Greek side of the border Thursday, and said he hoped a political solution would be found soon. He said he saw through the border fence that there were hundreds of people, including women and children, waiting on the Turkish side of the border.
“Every country, every institution like (the) European Union has the right to set up policies, but these policies must never affect they dignity of human beings,” he said. “It's very, very sad that we have seen again human beings treated as a political weapon. As a tool for politics. And this is unacceptable.”
He said “everyone should be grateful to Turkey" for sheltering millions of refugees for years, but ”political reason cannot justify the decision to open the border."
Greece has called the situation a direct threat to its national security and 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 Thursday it was important that Greece not be left alone and that a "united European answer" be found.
“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,” Maas said.
Greece's sea border has also come under pressure, 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.
There were no sea crossings Wednesday, when the area faced high winds and rough seas, but at least one boat arrived on Lesbos on Thursday.
Elena Becatoros in Athens, Costas Kantouris in Kastanies, Greece, and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed to this report.