Thousands of migrants mass at Greek border, more flee Syria as fighting escalates

The United Nations said Sunday that tens of thousands of people were massed on Turkey’s land border with Greece, after Turkey officially declared its western borders were open to migrants and refugees hoping to head into the European Union.

In Syria, Turkish troops shot down two Syrian warplanes after the Syrian military downed a Turkish drone, a major escalation in the direct conflict between Syrian and Turkish forces.

Turkey’s decision to ease border restrictions came amid a Russia-backed Syrian government offensive into Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. That offensive has killed dozens of Turkish troops and led to a surge of nearly a million Syrian civilians fleeing the fighting toward Turkey’s sealed border.

Family members and friends of Turkish soldier Emin Yildirim, who was killed in an airstrike in Idlib on Feb. 27, grieve during his funeral ceremony on Saturday in Hatay, Turkey. Turkey announced that it would open border gates for a period of 72 hours to allow refugees to cross into European countries after 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in a Syrian air strike in Idlib on Feb. 27. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Russia, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, remained largely on the sidelines through the weekend even as a Turkish-led counter offensive blunted and in some cases reversed Syrian government advances.

But the head of the Russian military’s Reconciliation Centre in Syria, Rear Adm. Oleg Zhuravlev, warned Turkey that its aircraft could be in danger if they fly over Syria.

“In view of the sharp exacerbation of tensions in the air space over Idlib, the Syrian government was forced to declare it closed,” Zhuravlev said in a statement released late Sunday. “In this situation, the Russian troops’ command can’t guarantee security of flights of Turkish aircraft in the skies over Syria.”

Greek authorities fire tear gas at border

Ankara is worried it might come under renewed international pressure to open its now-sealed border with Syria and offer refuge to hundreds of thousands more Syrian civilians. Turkey already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to open his country’s borders with Europe made good on a longstanding threat to let refugees into the continent. His announcement marked a dramatic departure from the current policy and an apparent attempt to pressure Europe into offering Turkey more support in dealing with the fallout from the Syrian war to its south.

The UN’s International Organization for Migration said Sunday that by the previous evening, its staff working along the Turkish-Greek land border “had observed at least 13,000 people gathered at the formal border crossing points at Pazarkule and Ipsala and multiple informal border crossings, in groups of between several dozen and more than 3,000.”

Greek authorities fired tear gas and stun grenades through Saturday to prevent repeated attempts by a crowd of more than 4,000 people massed at the border crossing in Kastanies to cross, and fought a cat-and-mouse game with groups cutting holes in a border fence along the border to crawl through.

Turkish Interior Minister Suleman Soylu tweeted that 76,385 refugees had left Turkey via Edirne, the province bordering Greece and Bulgaria as of Sunday morning. But there was no evidence to support his claim. Greece has shut its border, and there were a few dozen arrests of people who managed to cross through the border, Greek authorities have said.

Greek Deputy Defence Minister Alkiviadis Stefanis told the local broadcaster Skai there were around 9,600 attempts to illegally cross Greece’s border during the night Saturday to Sunday. Stefanis said all were successfully thwarted. Previously several dozen migrants had managed to make it through.

Migrants help each other after an attempt to enter Greece from a location near Edirne, Turkey, by crossing the Maritsa river on Sunday. (Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)

Greek officials said they arrested 66 migrants Friday, 17 of whom were sentenced to 3.5 years in jail for entering the country illegally. All Afghans, they were the first migrants sentenced for illegal entry since 2014. On Saturday, Greece arrested another 70 people who tried to cross the land border illegally.

Stavros Zamalides, president of the local community in Kastanies, said Turkish soldiers were actively helping people cross the Greek border clandestinely.

Soldiers cut wires for migrants

“Turkish soldiers with cutters in their hands were cutting the wires of the fence to lead the illegal migrants” into crossing the border, he said. “The attempt was thwarted by the intervention of our own patrol that happened to be passing that area on patrol at the time, and it repaired the damage in the fence,” he added.

Twenty-year-old Afghan Ayamuddin Azimi made it to the Greek border village of Nea Vyssa along with a compatriot. He said Turkey had opened its borders “to save the refugees” but when they got to the frontier they found the Greek side closed.

Refugees and migrants carry an inflatable boat as they attempt to enter Greece from Turkey by crossing the Evros River on Saturday in Edirne, Turkey. (Osman Orsal/Getty Images)

He crossed clandestinely, he said. “What can I do? We have nothing to do. This is our life.”

Others were making the short but often perilous sea crossing from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands. At least three dinghies carrying migrants arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos Sunday morning.

In parallel, the heavy fighting in northwest Syria has pushed nearly 950,000 displaced Syrian civilians to flee toward the border with Turkey.

Turkey is a strong backer of the rebels in Syria’s Idlib province. But the presence of thousands of Turkish troops there has done little to stop Assad’s relentless campaign to seize the last rebel-held territories.

Dozens of Turkish soldiers have been killed by the Russian-backed Syrian government forces around Idlib in recent days.

Erdogan has warned of an “imminent” operation against Assad’s forces unless they pull back from Turkish lines in Syria by the end of February.

Turkish drones strike targets in Idlib

As that deadline passed Saturday night, Turkish drones bombed Syrian government targets in Idlib, and Turkey-backed rebels shelled Syrian army positions. Fighting raged near the strategic town of Saraqeb as government troops sought to take it back from rebels, opposition activists and Syrian state-media said. The town, which lies on the Damascus-Aleppo highway, had changed hands several times in the last month.

Turkey has lost 54 soldiers in Idlib this month, including 33 killed in an airstrike on Thursday, and now feels the need to respond strongly. Talks between Turkey and Russia, the main power brokers in Syria, have so far failed to defuse tensions.

On Saturday, Erdogan said Turkey would no longer stand in the way of refugees and migrants already in the country who hope to head to Europe.

“We will not close the gates to refugees,” he said. “The European Union has to keep its promises. We are not obliged to look after and feed so many refugees.”

Under a €6-billion ($8.6-billion Cdn) deal in 2016, Turkey agreed to stem the tide of refugees to Europe in return for financial aid after more than a million people entered Europe in 2015. It has since accused the EU of failing to honour the agreement. Erdogan has frequently threatened to “open the gates” and allow refugees and migrants to head to Europe unless more international support was provided.

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