KASTANIES – Greece countered accusations from Turkey Wednesday that it was responsible for the death of a migrant, as its border authorities strove for a sixth day to keep thousands of migrants out by using tear gas, stun grenades and water cannons.
The border tensions followed last week's decision by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to declare the country's gateways to Greece open, in an apparent attempt to pressure Europe into offering Turkey more support in dealing with the fallout from the Syrian war to its south.
Turkish officials charged that Greek gunfire killed one migrant and wounded five others — a claim that Athens flatly rejected.
The office of Ekrem Canalp, governor for the Turkish border province of Edirne, said the death occurred on the Turkish side of the border close to the Kastanies — or Pazarkule in Turkish — crossing. An official at Edirne's Trakya University Hospital confirmed the death and injuries.
Reporters on the Greek side heard what sounded like gunfire, though it was unclear whether live ammunition was used. People could be seen carrying what could have been a person between them, and running to the Turkish border post. Shortly afterward, at least one ambulance left.
Greek border authorities also said Wednesday that Turkish police were firing tear gas at them, and supplied video they said backed their assertion.
Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas categorically denied any migrants had been wounded or killed by Greek authorities.
“The Turkish side creates and disperses fake news targeted against Greece,” he said. “There is no such incident with fire from the Greek authorities.”
Turkey had also claimed on Monday that a migrant was killed, which Athens again denied.
The crisis at the border of the two NATO allies — and historic regional rivals — comes at a time when tensions were already high over offshore exploration rights.
Erdogan's decision to open the border encouraged thousands of people seeking a better life in Europe to try their luck by land and sea. He has warned that millions of migrants may be headed Europe's way.
He has claimed more than 100,000 people have successfully crossed into Greece, vastly above the numbers being reported by Greece or observed by reporters at the border.
Greek authorities said Wednesday that more than 32,000 attempts to illegally cross the Evros border have been thwarted since Saturday morning, with 231 people — mostly Afghans — arrested. After a dip on Tuesday when top European Union officials visited the border, attempts roughly tripled to 4,600 Wednesday, while some 15,000 people were gathered along the frontier.
The European Union has accused Erdogan of blackmail.
Erdogan made the decision to open the border after a Russia-backed Syrian government offensive into Syria’s northwestern Idlib province killed dozens of Turkish soldiers fighting in Syria and prompted nearly a million Syrian civilians to head toward Turkey.
U.N. Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, “is very concerned about the situation on the border,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Wednesday.
As well as seeking to prevent migrants from crossing over land, Greece is having to patrol its waters as hundreds of migrants have headed for the eastern Aegean Sea islands from the nearby Turkish coast. Migrants cross in crammed and unseaworthy dinghies provided by smuggling rings. A child died when the boat he was in capsized off the island of Lesbos this week.
Gale-force winds and rough seas hampered sea crossings Wednesday.
The Greek government has called the situation a direct threat to national security and imposed emergency measures to carry out swift deportations and freeze asylum applications for one month. Migrants have been reporting being summarily pushed back across the border into Turkey.
The mass movement towards Greece has appeared organized. Buses, minibuses, cars and taxis were provided in Istanbul to ferry people to the border, while some of those who managed to cross have said they were told by Turkish authorities to go to Greece.
Meanwhile, Turkish officials closed the only other road crossing into Greece later Wednesday, citing “technical” work.
European Union interior ministers held emergency talks to show solidarity with Greece and to raise more equipment to bolster the 27-country bloc’s border with Turkey.
The European Commission has praised Greece as “the shield” on Europe’s external borders.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, speaking at the French Senate, said the “migratory pressure is at Europe’s door, ... That migratory pressure is being organized by President Erdogan’s regime to blackmail the European Union. The EU won’t give in to blackmail.”
Turkey, for its part, accused Greece of mistreating refugees.
Erdogan on Wednesday called on Greece and other European nations to respect migrants' rights. He also accused EU countries of hypocritical behavior, saying they had rushed to Greece's help "with money, boats and soldiers" to prevent a new influx of migrants but ignored Turkey's plight concerning 3.7 millions Syrian refugees on its territory.
Meanwhile, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia pledged to help Greece to deal with pressure along its border. The four countries have been known for their tough stance against migrants and rejected an EU plan to redistribute refugees in member states.
European Council head Charles Michel was meeting with Erdogan in Ankara Wednesday, while EU Vice President Josep Borrell and Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarcic were holding talks with Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay.
Speaking to reporters after a meeting with Erdogan, Borell said that the EU delegation asked Turkey “not to encourage the further movement of refugees and migrants toward the EU borders.”
Borell said Turkish officials' response was that Turkey was not encouraging people to move but that “they cannot prevent people from doing so.”
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Elena Becatoros and Nicholas Paphitis in Athens, Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Edith Lederer at the UN and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this report.