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Turkey deploys 1,000 police at Greek border as tensions rise

Ankara claims scores of people trying to enter Greece have been injured by guards

Tensions along Greece’s land border with Turkey have erupted again, barely 48 hours after European Union chiefs visited the region, as thousands of people, reportedly goaded by Turkish authorities, regrouped in the area.

Ankara announced it was deploying 1,000 police special forces along the frontier on Thursday, claiming scores of people had been injured by Greek guards trying to stop them from crossing into the country.

“They wounded 164 people. They tried to push 4,900 back to Turkey,” the country’s interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, told reporters after taking a helicopter tour of the Evros region. “We are deploying 1,000 special force police … to prevent the pushbacks.”

Ankara has accused Athens of resorting to increasingly aggressive measures to deter migrants and refugees from breaching the frontier, following its abrupt decision to no longer abide by a landmark 2016 accord to halt migratory flows to the EU.

In what has become as much a war of words as nerves, the neighbours – both Nato members but longstanding regional rivals – have exchanged barbs over the extent to which force has been used since Turkey declared it was “opening the doors” to Europe.

Earlier this week, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said Greek forces were firing on defenceless migrants trying to enter the EU state and had shot one man dead, an accusation deplored as “fake news” by the centre-right government in Athens.

The deployment of special police comes after the administration of the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, also rushed to reinforce Greece’s land and sea frontiers with elite troops.

On Wednesday, Greek riot police fired warning shots, teargas and water cannon to keep thousands of people from traversing the frontier, amid accusations of Turkish forces also firing many rounds of teargas into Greece. Authorities in Athens announced that about 7,000 illegal entries had been rebuffed overnight.

The man often cited as the intellectual architect of the 2106 deal said on Thursday that European leaders had made a “capital error” by neglecting to commit to future payments towards the informal arrangement with Erdoğan’s government.

“We need a new deal with Turkey,” said Gerald Knaus, who heads a small migration-focused thinktank.

The pact had worked for the last four years, Knaus said, because Erdoğan needed the €6bn (£5.2bn) the EU had committed to the arrangement. But member states had become complacent about the arrangement and failed to sufficiently raise the need for further funds during recent budget talks in the European council, he said. “We’ve put off the decision for four years.”

Knaus said suspending asylum claims on the Greek border risked undermining the fundamental rights that the EU claims to be built upon. “If Greece can suspend the right to asylum, what stops Hungary from suspending the next basic right? Viktor Orbán saw in the refugee crisis a great opportunity to end the era of human rights, and we risk proving him right.”

The tensions flared as Erdoğan prepared to meet Vladimir Putin in Moscow in a last-ditch effort to hammer out a ceasefire in Syria and avoid further calamity in the northern province of Idlib, Syria’s last rebel-held enclave.

Almost a million displaced citizens have moved into the area as the Assad regime, backed by Russia, has waged a merciless offensive against the province. Alarm over the prospect of yet more refugees piling into Turkey, already hosting 3.7 million Syrians, played a role in prompting Erdoğan to “open the doors” to Europe.

With officials in Brussels fearing the crisis is far from over, Frontex, the EU’s border agency, is poised to dispatch hundreds of extra guards and monitoring equipment to strengthen the bloc’s external borders. More patrol boats are expected to be deployed to Greece’s eastern Aegean isles facing the Turkish coast, where about 150,000 men, women and children are thought to have amassed in the hope of entering the country.

A flotilla of gunships and coastguard boats already in place around the isles has proven extraordinarily effective, with police in Lesbos reporting no new arrivals since Monday.

At the height of the Syrian civil war in 2015, almost a million Syrian refugees crossed into Europe via Lesbos alone. An estimated 27,000 people are currently housed on the island following a big rise in arrivals. Most are housed in Moria, a camp now seven times over capacity and widely regarded as the worst refugee installation in the world.

With local tensions running high, government officials confirmed on Thursday that a Greek naval carrier would transport about 508 people who had managed to reach Lesbos after Turkey’s about-face to the mainland. They will be held in a detention centre before being deported under new emergency measures introduced in response to what Mitsotakis has called an “asymmetric threat” to Greece’s national security.

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