Turkish president Erdogan vows to keep doors open for Syrian refugees heading for Europe

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to keep borders open for Syrian refugees headed for Europe as the first 18,000 cross the Greek border and migrants clash for the second day with guards.    

‘What did we do yesterday (Friday)? We opened the doors,’ Erdogan said in Istanbul in his first comments since 33 Turkish troops were killed in northern Syria on Thursday. ‘We will not close those doors …Why? Because the European Union should keep its promises.’

The Turkish leader also said 18,000 migrants have amassed on the Turkish borders with Europe since Friday, adding that the number could reach as many as 30,000 on Saturday.   

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.

A migrants stands during clashes with Greek police, at the Turkey’s Pazarkule border crossing with Greece’s Kastanies, in Edirne, Turkey today 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (rear C) makes a speech as he holds a meeting with his ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party's Istanbul deputies at the Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul, Turkey today

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (rear C) makes a speech as he holds a meeting with his ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party’s Istanbul deputies at the Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul, Turkey today 

Greek police officers are pictured from Turkey's Pazarkule border crossing with Greece's Kastanies during clashes with migrants, in Edirne, Turkey today

Greek police officers are pictured from Turkey’s Pazarkule border crossing with Greece’s Kastanies during clashes with migrants, in Edirne, Turkey today 

Tear gas floats in the air during clashes between migrants and Greek police, at the Turkey's Pazarkule border crossing with Greece's Kastanies, in Edirne, Turkey today

Tear gas floats in the air during clashes between migrants and Greek police, at the Turkey’s Pazarkule border crossing with Greece’s Kastanies, in Edirne, Turkey today 

The move by Turkey to open its border, first announced Thursday, was seen in Greece as a deliberate attempt to pressure European countries. It comes as tensions ratcheted up between Turkey and Syria. More than 55 Turkish troops have been killed since Turkey began sending further reinforcements into areas of northwest Syria under the control of rebels, which are backed by Turkey.

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

Turkey, which is already home to around 3.6 million Syrian refugees, fears more people arriving in the country where there is growing popular discontent against their presence.

‘We are not in a situation to handle a new wave of refugees’ from Syria, Erdogan said.

If Erdogan really has opened the border, it would be a dramatic departure from Turkey’s current policy. 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 honor the agreement.

Migrants wait as Greek anti riot police officers patrol on the buffer zone Turkey-Greece border, at Pazarkule, in Edirne district today

Migrants wait as Greek anti riot police officers patrol on the buffer zone Turkey-Greece border, at Pazarkule, in Edirne district today 

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

The Turkish troop deaths led officials to declare Turkey would not impede refugees seeking to enter Europe.

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 staging post and transit point to reach Europe, usually through neighboring Greece.

Migrants run away as Greek anti-riot police officers use tears gas on the buffer zone Turkey-Greece border, at Pazarkule today

Migrants run away as Greek anti-riot police officers use tears gas on the buffer zone Turkey-Greece border, at Pazarkule today 

A migrant throws back a tear gas canister toward Greek anti-riot police officers on the buffer zone Turkey-Greece border, at Pazarkule, in Edirne district today

A migrant throws back a tear gas canister toward Greek anti-riot police officers on the buffer zone Turkey-Greece border, at Pazarkule, in Edirne district today 

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.

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

Thursday’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 weekslong 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 province, which is dominated by al-Qaida-linked militants.

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

A Syrian migrant family, whose boats were flooded, are rescued after being stranded on an islet while trying to reach the Greek side of the Evros River in Edirne, Turkey today. Irregular migrants, including women and children, have been heading towards the border villages of the country's western provinces of Edirne and Canakkale to reach Greece

A Syrian migrant family, whose boats were flooded, are rescued after being stranded on an islet while trying to reach the Greek side of the Evros River in Edirne, Turkey today. Irregular migrants, including women and children, have been heading towards the border villages of the country’s western provinces of Edirne and Canakkale to reach Greece

‘We learnt the border was open and we headed there. But we saw it was closed, and we found a hole in the fence and went through it,’ said Ali Nikad, a 17-year-old Iranian who made it into Greece overnight with a group of friends.

Nikad said he had spent two months in Turkey but couldn’t make ends meet, and was hoping to find his uncle who was already in Greece.

Many of those who made it across the land border were seen being arrested and driven away in white vans.

A police officer told The Associated Press there was pressure along the 200-kilometer (125-mile) land border from migrants trying to force their way through overnight, and groups were being constantly repulsed. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak on the record.

Others were making their way to Greek islands in dinghies from the nearby Turkish coast.

Greece and Bulgaria increased security at their borders with Turkey. In Athens, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis convened an emergency meeting of top cabinet, military and coast guard officials Saturday morning on the issue.

Migrants run away as Greek anti riot-police officers use tears gas on the buffer zone Turkey-Greece border, at Pazarkule today

Migrants run away as Greek anti riot-police officers use tears gas on the buffer zone Turkey-Greece border, at Pazarkule today 

Greek border police throw tear gas canisters and stun grenades to send away irregular migrants trying to enter the Greek side of Turkey's border with Greece in Edirne, Turkey today

Greek border police throw tear gas canisters and stun grenades to send away irregular migrants trying to enter the Greek side of Turkey’s border with Greece in Edirne, Turkey today 

A migrant covers his face as tear gas floats in the air during clashes with Greek police, at the Turkey's Pazarkule border crossing with Greece's Kastanies, in Edirne, Turkey today

A migrant covers his face as tear gas floats in the air during clashes with Greek police, at the Turkey’s Pazarkule border crossing with Greece’s Kastanies, in Edirne, Turkey today 

In Syria, Turkey’s Defense Ministry said one of its soldiers was killed and two were injured by Syrian government shelling, the latest fatality after the deadly airstrike that killed 33 earlier this week.

The announcement late Friday also said Turkish forces hit Syrian government targets and a number of Syrian troops were ‘neutralized.’

It remained unclear whether Syrian or Russian jets carried out the airstrike, but Russia denied its aircraft were responsible.

Erdogan had given the Syrian government until the end of the month to pull back from areas captured in Idlib, threatening large-scale military action if they didn’t. But any large scale Turkish military action risks more loss of life among Turkish soldiers. He had kept unusually silent since the 33 deaths.

Greek border police throw tear gas canisters and stun grenades to send away irregular migrants trying to Greece through Turkey's border in Edirne, Turkey today

Greek border police throw tear gas canisters and stun grenades to send away irregular migrants trying to Greece through Turkey’s border in Edirne, Turkey today

NATO envoys held emergency talks Friday at the request of Turkey, a NATO member. While urging deescalation in Idlib, NATO offered no further assistance.

Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone Friday and discussed implementing agreements in Idlib, the Kremlin said. Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s director of communications, said they had agreed to meet ‘as soon as possible.’

Erdogan also spoke with other world leaders, including President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an immediate cease-fire in Idlib. He warned that ‘without urgent action, the risk of even greater escalation grows by the hour, and as always, civilians are paying the gravest price.’

Greek anti-riot police officers stand guard on the buffer zone of the Turkey-Greece border, at Pazarkule, in Edirne district, after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he vowed to keep the country's borders open for people seeking refuge in Europe

Greek anti-riot police officers stand guard on the buffer zone of the Turkey-Greece border, at Pazarkule, in Edirne district, after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he vowed to keep the country’s borders open for people seeking refuge in Europe 

Greek border guard use teargas on migrants trying to enter Greece, at Pazarkule border gate, Edirne, Turkey today

Greek border guard use teargas on migrants trying to enter Greece, at Pazarkule border gate, Edirne, Turkey today 

Migrants use an inflatable boat as they attempt to enter Greece from Turkey by crossing the Maritsa river near the Pazarkule border gate in Edirne, Turkey today

Migrants use an inflatable boat as they attempt to enter Greece from Turkey by crossing the Maritsa river near the Pazarkule border gate in Edirne, Turkey today 

A migrant throws a stone toward Greek police on the buffer zone of the Turkey-Greece border, at Pazarkule, min Edirne district today. Thousands of migrants stuck on the Turkey-Greece border clashed with Greek police on February 29, 2020, according to a photographer at the scene

A migrant throws a stone toward Greek police on the buffer zone of the Turkey-Greece border, at Pazarkule, min Edirne district today. Thousands of migrants stuck on the Turkey-Greece border clashed with Greek police on February 29, 2020, according to a photographer at the scene

A migrant throws back a tear gas canister toward Greek anti-riot police officers on the buffer zone of the Turkey-Greece border, at Pazarkule, in Edirne district today

A migrant throws back a tear gas canister toward Greek anti-riot police officers on the buffer zone of the Turkey-Greece border, at Pazarkule, in Edirne district today 

Thousands of migrants were pictured in clashes on the Turkey-Greece border with Greek police earlier today. 

Greek police fired tear gas at migrants who have amassed at a border crossing in the western Turkish province of Edirne, some of whom responded by hurling stones at the officers.

The clashes come as Greece bolsters its border after Ankara said it would no longer prevent refugees from crossing into Europe following the death of 33 Turkish troops in northern Syria 

The largest wave of displacement in Syria’s nine-year war has been caused by warring between Turkey and Syria in Idlib city in northwestern Syria. Nearly 950,000 people have fleed to areas near the Turkish border for safety. Ankara sealed its borders in 2015 and agreed to step up efforts to halt the flow of refugees under a 2016 deal with the European Union.

Migrants cover their noses and mouths after police launched tear gas cannisters at them on the Turkey-Greece border today

Migrants cover their noses and mouths after police launched tear gas cannisters at them on the Turkey-Greece border today 

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy warned that the movement of migrants to the West could continue if the situation in Idlib deteriorated further.

‘Some asylum seekers and migrants in our country, worried about developments, have begun to move towards our western borders,’ he said. ‘If the situation worsens, this risk will continue to increase.’ However, he added that there was ‘no change’ in Turkey’s migration policy.

Saying ‘significant numbers’ of migrants and refugees had gathered on the Turkish side of the border with Greece, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted that no illegal crossings would be tolerated and that Greece was not to blame for the ‘tragic events in Syria.’ He called a meeting of top cabinet and military officials for Saturday.

Greece deployed police and military patrols to the border. Police said an estimated 1,200 people had gathered late Friday and periodically tried to push through. Some managed to cut holes in the fence close to the Kastanies border crossing and attacked police with stones but were driven back with tear gas and stun grenades.

A migrant returns a tear gas cannister after trying to breach past Greek border guards on the Greece-Turkey border today

A migrant returns a tear gas cannister after trying to breach past Greek border guards on the Greece-Turkey border today 

Greek border police throw tear gas canisters and stun grenades to send away migrants who tried to enter Greece through the Turkish side of the border in Edirne, Turkey today

Greek border police throw tear gas canisters and stun grenades to send away migrants who tried to enter Greece through the Turkish side of the border in Edirne, Turkey today 

Irregular migrants, who try to enter Greek side at Turkey's border with Greece, wait as Greek border police intervene them with tear gas canisters to send away them in Edirne, Turkey today

Irregular migrants, who try to enter Greek side at Turkey’s border with Greece, wait as Greek border police intervene them with tear gas canisters to send away them in Edirne, Turkey today 

A police officer told The Associated Press that pressure was mounting along the 200-kilometer (125-mile) land border.

‘Along the entire length of the border, there are much increased attempts to break through,’ said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter with the media. ‘But police and army units are constantly deterring them.’

Off Turkey’s west coast, several rubber dinghies with groups of people aboard headed for the island of Lesbos. 

However, migrant crossings from the Turkish coast to Greek islands are a daily occurrence, and Greece’s coast guard said there was no notable increase in arrivals.

 Five boats carrying a total of 151 people had arrived – a fairly average daily number – and the coast guard said there were no reports that Turkish officials were allowing migrant boats to sail unchecked.  

Both Turkey and Russia spoke by phone Friday to try to defuse tensions that rose significantly in Syria after at least 33 Turkish troops were killed in an airstrike blamed on the Syrian government.

A man covers his face after Greek police shot tear gas at migrants on the Greece-Turkey border earlier today

A man covers his face after Greek police shot tear gas at migrants on the Greece-Turkey border earlier today 

The attack Thursday marked the deadliest day for the Turkish military since Ankara first entered the Syrian conflict in 2016 and also was the most serious escalation between Turkish and Russian-backed Syrian forces, raising the prospect of an all-out war with millions of Syrian civilians trapped in the middle.

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