Tension flared at Greece's mainland border with Turkey early on Friday as volleys of tear gas were fired from the Turkish side of the fence towards Greek border guards.
Thousands of refugees and other migrants have been trying to get into Greece through the country’s eastern land and sea borders where there has been a standoff since February 28, after Turkey declared it would no longer hold back thousands of migrants stuck in that country under a deal brokered with the EU in 2016.
A Reuters correspondent saw Greek forces use a water cannon in an attempt to disperse people crowding at the border. It was followed by a volley of tear gas from the other side.
"(The) attacks are coordinated by drones. Apart from intimidation, these attacks are taking place from the Turkish police to help migrants cross the fence border line," a Greek government official said.
Turkey has said any tear gas fired is in response to tear gas fired from the Greek side. "Why would Turkey fire tear gas to the Greek side of the border?" Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu told reporters after visiting the border area on Thursday. "Greece is firing tear gas at us, they are firing tear gas at our police stations at the border. We are responding to that."
Both sides used tear gas at the Kastanies border post on Wednesday. Ankara has accused Greek forces of shooting dead four migrants, a charge rejected by Athens, which says Turkish forces are helping the migrants to cross the border.
Athens has called the confrontations a threat to national security and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis brought European Union leaders to the area to press his case for support to avoid a repeat of 2015, when tens of thousands of asylum seekers poured into the European Union.
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Erdogan's move to open the border 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.
A cease-fire in Idlib brokered by Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday went into effect at midnight. Opposition activists and a war monitor reported a complete absence of Russian and Syrian government warplanes in the skies of Idlib and a relative calm in the area. It was not clear whether the agreement would also affect the situation on the Turkish-Greek border.
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.
Greek officials have repeatedly stressed that those attempting to cross the border are not refugees from Idlib, and mostly not Syrians. The vast majority reporters have seen who managed to cross the frontier have been from Afghanistan and other countries.
The situation on the border of EU-member Greece has alarmed European countries, whose foreign ministers were holding an emergency meeting in Zagreb, Croatia, Friday to discuss Syria.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell welcomed the cease-fire. “Let’s see how it works, that is the precondition in order to increase humanitarian help for the people in Idlib,” he said.
Borrell said the EU needs to improve relations with Turkey and with Russia, adding the foreign ministers will discuss more funds for Turkey. He wouldn't go into details or say how many countries support or oppose the idea.
“Turkey is having a big burden, 4 million people, we have to understand that," Borrell said. "But at the same time we cannot accept migrants being used as a source of pressure. But Turkey is supporting a big burden that’s for sure.”
Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said he opposed more aid for Turkey now, criticizing the “cynical way” Erdogan was using refugees.
Commenting on the cease-fire, Blok said "it would be wise to add a no-fly zone.
"I think European countries are very willing to step forward ... to convince all UN Security Council members to set up this no-fly zone. It wouldn't hinder the fight against al Qaeda (militants), but it will stop the bombings of hospitals," Blok added.