Child dies as migrants rush to cross Greek-Turkish border

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Migrants from Iran detain by Greek authorities in the village of Kastanies near the Greek-Turkish border on Sunday, March 1, 2020. Thousands of migrants and refugees massed at Turkey’s western frontier, trying to enter Greece by land and sea after Turkey said its borders were open to those hoping to head to Europe (AP Photo/Giannis Papanikos)

KASTANIES, Greece (AP) — A child died when a boat full of migrants heading to a Greek island capsized Monday, part of a wave of thousands trying to push through Greece’s land and sea borders.

The child’s death was the first since neighboring Turkey announced Thursday it was easing restrictions on those wishing to cross to Europe, and thousands of migrants began massing at the frontiers with Greece.

Greek authorities said they had stopped more than 24,000 attempted illegal crossings at the land border with Turkey since early Saturday, and arrested 183 people — very few of whom were Syrians.

Turkey’s announcement marked a dramatic departure from its previous policy of containing refugees and other migrants under an agreement with the European Union. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, has demanded more support from Europe in dealing with the fallout from the Syrian war to its south.

As European countries rushed to back Greece, Erdogan said Monday that Western leaders were calling him and urging him to reverse the border opening. “It’s done, the gates are open now. You will have your share of this burden now,” he said he told them.

Soon “the number of people going to the border will be expressed in millions,” he said.

Greece, which has made clear its borders will remain closed, says it is faced with an organized Turkish campaign to push people through. The two uneasy NATO allies are historic regional rivals who have come close to war three times in the past half-century, and even before the migration crisis relations were tense over undersea exploitation rights.

Greek Development Minister Adonis Georgiadis said Greece faced “an organized invasion from a foreign country.”

“Turkey is making use of innocent people in its efforts to destabilize Greece and Europe,” he told state ERT TV.

The government has sent army and police reinforcements to its borders and suspended asylum applications for a month. It says it will return those entering the country illegally without registering them.

On Monday, Greek border guards prevented 4,354 people who attempted to cross the land border with Turkey, either by cutting or climbing the fence or crossing the Evros River running along the frontier, authorities said

At one site, Greek police fired tear gas at migrants throwing stones as they tried to push through, while nearby other migrants held white flags, shouting “peace, peace,” and asking to be let in.

In the 24 hours until Monday morning, 977 people crossing on boats reached Greek islands near the Turkish coast, the coast guard said.

One dinghy carrying 48 migrants heading to the island of Lesbos was accompanied by a Turkish patrol vessel while in Turkish waters. The migrants deliberately overturned their boat once in Greek waters, the Greek coast guard said.

The coast guard said they rescued the migrants, but one boy, aged around 6 or 7 and believed to be from Syria, was unconscious and efforts to revive him failed.

On the Turkish side, an official said its coast guard saved people when their boat was targeted by the Greek coast guard. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, said the Greek coast guard “performed maneuvers aimed at sinking” the boat as well as firing warning shots and hitting those on board with boat hooks. There was no immediate reaction from the Greek side.

Under a 2016 deal, Turkey agreed to stem the tide of refugees to Europe in return for more than 6 billion euros in financial aid after more than a million people entered Europe in 2015. Ankara has since accused the EU of failing to honor the agreement. Erdogan has frequently threatened to “open the gates” unless more international support is provided.

Turkey eased its border restrictions amid a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive into Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, which has killed dozens of Turkish troops and sent nearly a million additional Syrian civilians fleeing toward Turkey’s sealed border.

With heavy clashes continuing there Monday, Erdogan said he is hoping to secure a cease-fire during talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow set for Thursday.

Margaritis Schinas, the EU commissioner for migration, told reporters in Berlin on Monday that “nobody can blackmail and intimidate the European Union,” Germany’s dpa news agency reported.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it is “understandable” that Erdogan feels overwhelmed by the number of refugees at the Syrian border, and that Russia needs to be pressed on a cease-fire.

“I understand that the Turkish government and President Erdogan expect more from Europe,” Merkel said. But it is “fully unacceptable that that is now being put on the backs of refugees.”

German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said Merkel offered to hold a four-way meeting with Erdogan, Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron to discuss the crisis in Syria.

Seibert said upholding the EU-Turkey deal was in both sides’ interests, saying more than 3 billion euros has been released to Turkey so far, along with bilateral funds.

The prime minister of Bulgaria, which also shares a land border with Turkey, was heading for talks with Erdogan in Ankara later Monday. Boyko Borissov told reporters they will discuss the migrant issue and measures for de-escalating tensions in Syria.

European countries moved to show support for Greece amid the border surge. The EU’s border protection agency Frontex said it was rushing extra border guards to the area, at Athens’ request.

Top EU officials, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, were to join Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on a visit to the land border Tuesday. Mitsotakis’ office said he discussed the situation with U.S. President Donald Trump in a phone call Monday.

“The challenge that Greece is facing right now is a European challenge,” von der Leyen said.

Apparently to dissuade migrants from approaching, the Greek army announced a 24-hour live-fire exercise for Monday along the land border and on a long arc of Aegean Sea islands. Greek authorities have also accused Turkish border guards of firing tear gas over the border to prevent its guards from stopping migrants.

Greek authorities said they arrested 42 migrants who made it into Greece on Monday, most of them from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Morocco.

Therose Ngonda, a 40-year-old from Cameroon, made it into Greece by wading across the river.

Speaking in the morning, her feet still wet, she said she had been told migrants had 72 hours from Friday to leave Turkey. She got on one of dozens of buses and minibuses ferrying people from Istanbul to the border, among about 2,000 people, including Syrians and families with young children.

Ngonda said she was put into the river on the Turkish side of the border. “They told me ‘go that way’.”

On Greece’s Lesbos island, local anger boiled over, with some residents preventing people, including young children and babies, from disembarking from a dinghy in a small harbor. Elsewhere on the island, they prevented buses from taking new arrivals to Lesbos’ massively overcrowded migrant camp of Moria. The new arrivals spent the night on the beach.

Human rights organizations deplored the border situation, which Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic described as an “unprecedented humanitarian crisis.”

“Urgent action is now needed to prevent the situation from getting even worse,” Mijatovic said.

The U.N. refugee agency appealed for calm at the Greek-Turkish border. But it said that while the situation there is “of concern,” the “humanitarian disaster unfolding in northwest Syria and massive humanitarian needs in Idlib for some 950,000 internally displaced people continues to require urgent action.”

___

Becatoros reported from Athens. Associated Press writer Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, Andrew Wilks in Ankara, Turkey, Nicholas Paphitis in Athens, Greece, Vaggelis Papadonis in Lesbos, Greece, Frank Jordans and David Rising in Berlin and Samuel Petrequin in Brussels contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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