Turkey vowed the Syrian regime will “pay a price” for dozens of dead Turkish soldiers and raised pressure on the EU over the conflict by threatening to let thousands of migrants enter the bloc.
Turkey and Russia, which back opposing forces in the Syria conflict, held high-level talks to try to defuse tensions that have sparked fears of a broader war and a new migration crisis for Europe.
Greek police clashed on Saturday with thousands of migrants who were already gathering on the border to try to enter Europe.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday vowed to allow refugees to travel on to Europe from Turkey which he said can no longer handle new waves of people fleeing war-torn Syria. It already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.
The comments were his first after Turkish 34 troops were killed since Thursday in the northern Syria province of Idlib where Moscow-backed Syrian regime forces are battling to retake the last rebel holdout area.
“What did we do yesterday (Friday)? We opened the doors,” Erdogan said in Istanbul. “We will not close those doors …Why? Because the European Union should keep its promises.”
He was referring to a 2016 deal with the European Union to stop refugee flows in exchange for billions of euros in aid.
In Athens, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis held an emergency meeting to discuss tensions on the border with Turkey.
The Turkish leader 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.
— VasoPapadopoulou (@VasoPapadopoul3) February 29, 2020
Thousands of migrants who remained stuck on the Turkish-Greek border were in skirmishes with Greek police on Saturday who fired tear gas to push them back, according to AFP photographer in the western province of Edirne.
The migrants massed at the Pazarkule border crossing responded by hurling stones at the police.
Violations of our borders
In 2015, Greece became the main EU entry point for one million migrants, most of them refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. The pressure to cope with the influx split the European Union.
“Greece yesterday came under an organised, mass, illegal attack… a violation of our borders and endured it,” government spokesman Stelios Petsas said Saturday after the emergency meeting with Mitsotakis. “We averted more than 4,000 attempts of illegal entrance to our land borders.”
A Greek police source said security forces fired tear gas Saturday morning against migrants massing on the Turkish side because the migrants had set fires and opened holes in the border fences.
Armed policemen and soldiers are patrolling the Evros river shores – a common crossing point – and are warning with loudspeakers not to enter Greek territory. Greek authorities were also using drones to monitor the migrants moves. Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos told Skai television the situation was under control. “I believe that the borders have been protected,” he said.
According to Hellenic Coast Guard, from early Friday to early Saturday 180 migrants reached the islands of Eastern Aegean, Lesbos and Samos in sea crossings.
The UN said nearly a million people — half of them children — have been displaced in the bitter cold by the fighting in northwest Syria since December.
‘Pay a price’
Turkey said that Turkish forces destroyed a “chemical warfare facility,” just south of Aleppo, in retaliation its soldiers were killed by Syrian regime fire in Idlib.
“As of last night, we blew up a depot housing seven chemical products,” Erdogan said. “We would not want things to reach this point but as they force us to do this, they will pay a price.”
But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on sources inside the war-torn country, said that Turkey instead hit a military airport in eastern Aleppo, where the monitoring group says there are no chemical weapons.
Thirty-three Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike by Russian-backed Syrian regime forces in the Idlib on Thursday, the biggest Turkish military loss on the battlefield in recent years. A 34th Turkish soldier has since died.
The latest incident has raised further tensions between Ankara and Moscow, whose relationship has been tested by violations of a 2018 deal to prevent a regime offensive on Idlib.
Read more: Turkey-Russia eyeball to eyeball
The United States and the United Nations have called for an end to the Syrian offensive in Idlib and the deadly flare-up raising fresh concerns for civilians caught up in the escalation of the eight-year civil war.
Pakistan dubs Idlib airstrikes ‘threat to peace
Pakistan on Friday extended condolences to Turkey over loss of lives of the Turkish troops in an airstrike by the Bashar al-Assad regime forces in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province on Thursday.
“Pakistan acknowledges and expresses support for Turkey’s legitimate security and humanitarian concerns in the region, and calls on all regional and international actors to help effectively address and resolve the situation,” said a statement issued by Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry.
Sad news about a attack on turkish army in IDlib And died some solders
Our hearts are beating with them
They are our brothers and May Allah protect them Ameen#TurkishArmy#PakTurkFriendship
Turkey 🇹🇷 pakistan 🇵🇰 Kashmir
— Malik Ateeb Minhas (#stayhome) (@AteebMinhas) February 29, 2020
The statement said the recent developments are not only a grave threat to regional peace and security but will also exacerbate the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the region.
“Pakistan once again urges the international community to play its role towards finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict, as well as addressing the prevailing humanitarian crisis,” it went on to say.
Late Thursday, at least 33 Turkish soldiers were martyred and dozens of others injured in an airstrike by Assad regime forces in the Idlib, Syria de-escalation zone, just across Turkey’s southern border.d
The Turkish soldiers are working to protect local civilians under a September 2018 deal with Russia under which acts of aggression are prohibited in the region.
But more than 1,300 civilians have been killed in attacks by Assad and Russian forces in the zone since then, as the cease-fire continues to be violated.
Thursday’s attack was one of a series since January on Turkish troops, with Turkish officials keeping their pledge that such assaults would not go unanswered.
The de-escalation zone is currently home to 4 million civilians, including hundreds of thousands displaced in recent years by regime forces throughout the war-torn country.
More than 1.7 million Syrians have moved near the Turkish border due to intense attacks.
Since the eruption of the bloody civil war in Syria in 2011, Turkey has taken in some 3.7 million Syrians who fled their country, making it the world’s top refugee hosting country.
AFP with additional inputs from GVS News Desk