Migrants and Greek police traded tear gas and rocks at the border with Turkey on Friday, where thousands of refugees have been encouraged by Ankara to leave for the European Union.
The brief clashes occurred as many desperate migrants tried to break through the fence, according to AFP journalists at the scene, but they quickly ended the volley or rocks and instead sat peacefully chanting “freedom” and “open the gates”.
Makeshift camps for thousands of migrants have sprung up around the border since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week that his country would no longer be stopped from trying to leave.
Many say they are being pushed to attempt illegal entry to Greece.
“They (the Turkish military) told us that if you don’t go to the border… you will be forced to come back to Turkey and people don’t want to come back because they don’t have any good opportunities, there isn’t anything,” Ali, an Iranian, told AFP.
The EU’s diplomatic chief made a direct appeal to the migrants not to go to the Greek border.
“The border is not open,” EU High Representative Josep Borrell said after a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Zagreb.
Turkey and Russia agreed a ceasefire in Syria on Thursday, but Ankara is still threatened by a potential new influx of refugees from the last rebel stronghold of Idlib and has sought to pressure Europe into providing greater assistance.
Turkey already hosts some four million refugees, and recent advances by the Syrian army, backed by Russian army, have pushed close to a million more towards its border.
– ‘Coordinated attacks’ –
On Friday, Greek officials accused Turkey of firing tear gas and smoke bombs at their border guards and providing cutters to migrants to break through fencing.
“There are coordinated attacks this morning,” a Greek official told AFP. “Apart from intimidation, these attacks are taking place from the Turkish police to help migrants cross the fence border line.”
Meanwhile, two Greek men were convicted of threatening aid workers on the island of Lesbos, where there has been a violent backlash against those helping the swelling number of arrivals.
“I will continue to defend my country. Most of the (aid groups) operate like spies. These gangsters should leave the island,” said 73-year-old Konstantinos Alvanopoulos after being given a three-month suspended sentence.
Erdogan’s office said the Syrian ceasefire would not alter its policy on refugees leaving for Europe.
“The Russia-Turkey agreement does not… change the fact of the European Union’s non-compliance with its promises as part of the 2016 refugee deal,” presidential sources told state news agency Anadolu.
Turkey agreed in 2016 to stop letting migrants leave in exchange for six billion euros — but Ankara says other parts of the deal including improved visa and trade rules were never fulfilled.
Russia, which backs Syrian government forces with air power, agreed to impose a ceasefire in Idlib from midnight and the skies were free of warplanes for the first day in months on Friday, although previous peace agreements have proved temporary.
The EU welcomed the ceasefire.
“For sure I am pleased for the ceasefire, the ceasefire is good news. At least it’s goodwill — let’s see how it works,” Borrell said in Zagreb.
“But there’s still an extraordinary humanitarian challenge that I think we all face in terms of the sheer numbers of refugees,” added Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney.