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'Caught in the middle of a game': Migrants stranded amid EU-Turkey stand-off

Thousands of migrants have been pushing to cross the border into Greece since Turkey declared its previously guarded gateways to Europe open.
Thousands of migrants have been pushing to cross the border into Greece since Turkey declared its previously guarded gateways to Europe open. © France 24 screen grab

Greece countered accusations from Turkey on 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.

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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.

Greek border authorities also said Wednesday that Turkish police were firing tear gas at them, and supplied video they said backed their assertion.

The latest spat comes as tens of thousands of migrants have rushed to the border believing they would be able to cross into Europe, only for Greek security forces to push them back.

"We're exhausted, we feel as if we're caught in the middle of a game, where they are pushing us from side to side," one migrant told FRANCE 24's reporters at the border. "We want to know if we can cross over, or whether we should return home."

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.

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.

In a statement agreed by European interior ministers meeting in Brussels on Wednesday, the 27 capitals said the "situation at the EU's external borders is not acceptable".

The EU statement said the bloc "strongly rejects Turkey's use of migratory pressure for political purposes".

Earlier, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government had denied that it was using the threat of a wave of migrants to "blackmail" the EU.

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.

Ankara wants Brussels to step up support for the 3.7 million refugees and migrants that Turkey is already hosting, and back Turkey in its increasingly intense confrontation with the Syrian regime.

But EU members insist Turkey must stick to a previous deal in which Brussels agreed to pay billions of euros in exchange for Turkey preventing refugees and migrants from crossing to Greece.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP)

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