Turkey’s borders with Europe open as migrants gather, says president

By Andrew Wilks and Costas Kantouris, Associated Press
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Turkey’s borders with Europe open as migrants gather, says president

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said his country’s borders with Europe are open, as thousands of refugees gathered at the frontier with Greece.

Migrants played a cat-and-mouse game with Greek border patrols throughout the night and into Saturday, with some cutting holes in the fence only to be turned back by tear gas and stun grenades.

Greek authorities also fired tear gas to repulse attempts by the crowd to push through the border.

The move by Turkey to open its border was seen in Greece as a deliberate attempt to pressure European countries, as tensions ratcheted up between Turkey and Syria.

More than 55 Turkish troops have been killed since Ankara began sending more forces into rebel-held areas of north-west Syria, which are backed by Turkey.

A Turkish military convoy east of Idlib (Syria (AP)

“We will not close the gates to refugees,” Mr Erdogan said in a speech in Istanbul. “The European Union has to keep its promises.”

Under a 2016 deal, Turkey agreed to stem the tide of refugees to Europe in return for financial aid. It has since protested that the EU has failed to honour the agreement.

Mr Erdogan was speaking for the first time since 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in air strikes in north-west Syria on Thursday, the largest single loss of life for Turkish forces since their country became involved in Syria in 2016.

The deaths led officials to declare Turkey would not impede refugees seeking to enter Europe. Another soldier was killed by Syrian government shelling overnight.

On Saturday, small groups managed to get across into Greece clandestinely. The vast majority were from Afghanistan, and most were men, although there were also some families with young children. They took shelter during the night in abandoned buildings or small chapels in the Greek countryside before starting to walk towards northern Greek.

Mr Erdogan has frequently threatened to “open the gates” and allow migrants to head to Europe unless more international support was provided, particularly at times of tension with European countries.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Presidential Press Service/AP)

Turkey currently hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, and many fleeing war and poverty in Asia, Africa and the Middle East use it as a transit point to reach Europe, usually through neighbouring Greece.

Thusday’s deaths — the highest number in a single day since Turkey first intervened in Syria in 2016 — were the most serious escalation between Turkish and Russian-backed Syrian forces. The development has raised the prospect of an all-out war with millions of Syrian civilians trapped in the middle.

Syrian government forces have been on a weeks-long offensive into Idlib province, the country’s last rebel stronghold, which borders Turkey. Thousands of Turkish soldiers are deployed inside rebel-controlled areas of Idlib, which is dominated by al Qaida-linked militants.

The Idlib offensive has pushed nearly 950,000 displaced civilians towards the Syrian-Turkish border amid cold winter weather.