Migrants react as Greek anti-riot police officers use teargas on the buffer zone Turkey-Greece border, at Pazarkule, in Edirne, on Feb 29, 2020. Thousands have massed at a crossing in the western province. Photo: Ozan Kose / AFP

The EU’s border protection agency Frontex said on Sunday it is on “high alert” on Europe’s borders with Turkey as thousands of migrants seek to enter the bloc, adding it is deploying support to Greece.

“We… have raised the alert level for all borders with Turkey to high,” the Frontex spokeswoman said in a statement.

“We have received a request from Greece for additional support. We  have already taken steps to redeploy to Greece technical equipment and additional officers,” she added.

Thousands of migrants were getting unimpeded passage across Turkey to the borders of European Union member countries Greece and Bulgaria. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he “opened the gates” for them after dozens of his troops were killed in airstrikes in northern Syria by Damascus’s Russian-backed regime. 

He is seen to be using the migration flow to try to pressure the EU and its NATO member states to lend him support in Turkey’s military operation in Syria.

Frontex said it was monitoring closely the situation along the Greek and Bulgarian borders with Turkey and “we are looking into other ways of supporting EU countries bordering Turkey”.

The statement added: “We are in close contact with Greek authorities regarding additional support we can provide in this rapidly evolving situation.”

It said it was also monitoring the situation in Cyprus, an EU member state whose northern part is controlled by Turkey and only recognised by Ankara.

The agency said it was already staffing operations in Greece and Bulgaria. Its biggest deployment is in the Greek islands, where it has 400 personnel, and a contingent in the Evros region on the Greek-Turkey border. It currently has 60 officers in Bulgaria, it said.

On Saturday, Turkey threatened to allow tens of thousands of refugees to leave for Europe and warned Damascus would “pay a price” after dozens of Turkish troops were killed inside Syria. Late on Sunday, Ankara said it would pursue a military operation against the Syrian regime, but noted that it did not wish to clash with Russia.

Clashes on Saturday

At the Turkish border on Saturday, Greek police clashed with several thousand migrants who were already gathered at the entrance into EU territory. Young migrants lobbed rocks at Greek riot police as tear gas wafted through the trees on the frontier. 

Turkey and Russia, which back opposing forces in the Syria conflict, held talks to try to defuse tensions triggered after the Turkish troops were killed, sparking fears of a broader war and a new migration crisis for Europe. 

But Erdogan raised the stakes on Saturday and vowed to allow refugees to travel to Europe from Turkey which he said cannot handle new waves of people fleeing Syria. It already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

The comments were his first after 34 Turkish troops were killed since Thursday in the northern Syria province of Idlib where Moscow-backed Syrian regime forces are battling to retake the last rebel holdout area.

‘EU should keep its promises’ 

“What did we do yesterday [Friday]? We opened the doors,” Erdogan said in Istanbul. “We will not close those doors …Why? Because the European Union should keep its promises.” 

He was referring to a 2016 deal with the European Union to stop refugee flows in exchange for billions of euros in aid.

In Athens, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis held an emergency meeting to discuss tensions on the border with Turkey.

Erdogan said 18,000 migrants have massed on the Turkish borders with Europe since Friday, adding that the number could reach as many as 30,000 on Saturday.

Thousands of migrants who remained stuck on the Turkish-Greek border were in skirmishes with Greek police on Saturday who fired tear gas to push them back, according to AFP photographer in the western province of Edirne.

The migrants massed at the Pazarkule border crossing responded by hurling stones at the police. 

‘Violations of our borders’

In 2015, Greece became the main EU entry point for one million migrants, most of them refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. The pressure to cope with the influx split the European Union.

“Greece yesterday came under an organized, mass, illegal attack… a violation of our borders and endured it,” government spokesman Stelios Petsas said on Saturday after the emergency meeting with Mitsotakis. 

“We averted more than 4,000 attempts of illegal entrance to our land borders.” 

A Greek police source said security forces fired tear gas in the morning against migrants massing on the Turkish side because the migrants had set fires and opened holes in the border fences.  

Armed policemen and soldiers are patrolling the Evros river shores – a common crossing point – and are warning with loudspeakers not to enter Greek territory. Greek authorities were also using drones to monitor the migrants moves.

Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos told Skai television the situation was under control. “I believe that the borders have been protected,” he said. 

According to Hellenic Coast Guard, from early Friday to early Saturday 180 migrants reached the islands of eastern Aegean, Lesbos and Samos in sea crossings.

The UN said nearly a million people – half of them children – have been displaced in the bitter cold by the fighting in northwest Syria since December.

‘Pay a price’

Turkey said that Turkish forces destroyed a “chemical warfare facility,” just south of Aleppo, in retaliation its soldiers were killed by Syrian regime fire in Idlib.

“As of last night, we blew up a depot housing seven chemical products,” Erdogan said. “We would not want things to reach this point but as they force us to do this, they will pay a price.”

But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on sources inside the war-torn country, said that Turkey instead hit a military airport in eastern Aleppo, where the monitoring group says there are no chemical weapons.

Some 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in an air strike by Russian-backed Syrian regime forces in the Idlib on Thursday, the biggest Turkish military loss on the battlefield in recent years. A 34th Turkish soldier has since died.

The latest incident has raised further tensions between Ankara and Moscow, whose relations has been tested by violations of a 2018 deal to prevent a regime offensive on Idlib. 

As part of the agreement, Ankara set up 12 observation posts in the province but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces – backed by Russian air power – have pressed on with a relentless campaign to take back the remaining chunks of the territory. 

On Friday, Erdogan spoke by phone with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in a bid to scale down the tensions. The Kremlin said the two expressed “serious concern” about the situation. Erdogan may travel next week to Moscow for talks, the Kremlin said. 

Despite being on opposite ends of the war, Turkey, which backs several rebel groups in Syria, and key regime ally Russia are trying to find a political solution.

The US and the United Nations have called for an end to the Syrian offensive in Idlib and the deadly flare-up raising fresh concerns for civilians caught up in the escalation of the eight-year civil war.

AFP reporting, with Kadir Demir in Pazarkule with Fulya Ozerkan in Istanbul

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