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Assad says Erdogan blackmailing Europe with refugees

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Damascus (AFP)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday accused his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan of blackmailing Europe by opening its borders to fleeing refugees.

"Turkey has started to send a second wave of refugees as a form of blackmail to Europe," Assad said in an interview with the Russia 24 channel aired on Syrian state TV.

As thousands of desperate refugees gathered on Turkey's border with European Union member Greece, some EU states and the bloc's migration commissioner have also accused Turkey of using migrants as a bargaining chip with Brussels to get support for its operations in Syria.

A three-month-old military offensive by Damascus, which Russia has supported with air power, has shrunk Syria's last rebel bastion and displaced close to a million people.

The newly-displaced civilians are massing near the border with Turkey, which already hosts more Syrian refugees than any other country, some 3.6 million people.

The interview was broadcast as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan held talks in Moscow, a summit aimed at securing an elusive ceasefire in Syria's rebel-held Idlib enclave.

A regime strike last month in Idlib resulted in the deaths of 34 Turkish soldiers, the heaviest loss of personnel for Ankara since its military intervention in 2016.

Turkey's reply has been bruising, with devastating drone and rocket strikes destroying regime positions and military equipment and killing dozens of government troops.

Erdogan's move to open the floodgates for refugees seeking to flee to Europe has sent Brussels into a panic, raising the spectre of a repeat of the 2015-2016 migrant crisis.

The Turkish president has rejected accusations he was blackmailing Europe and stressed that "Turkey's capacity has a limit".

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