THESSALONIKI – Clashes broke out on Greece's border with Turkey before dawn Wednesday, after about 500 migrants attempted to break down a border fence and enter Greece.
Greek police said they used tear gas to repel the push south of the Kastanies border crossing. They said Turkish authorities also fired tear gas at the Greek border. The clashes began at 2 a.m. and lasted for roughly two hours.
An estimated 2,000 migrants are still camped out on the Greek-Turkish border, weeks after Turkey declared its borders to Europe open and encouraged migrants and refugees living in the country to try crossing into European Union member Greece.
Tens of thousands of people headed to the frontier despite Greece’s insistence that its eastern border, which is also the EU’s external border, was shut. The move came after months of threats by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he would allow millions of refugees into Europe unless the EU provided more support for refugee care in Turkey.
The EU says it is adhering to a 2016 deal with Turkey under which it provides billions of euros in funds in return for Turkey caring for more than 3.5 million refugees from neighboring Syria.
On Wednesday, Turkey declared that it was closing down its six land and sea border crossings with Greece and Bulgaria in an effort to contain the spread of the new coronavirus. But a senior Turkish official said that the measure did not amount to an end of Ankara's policy of not preventing migrants from leaving Turkey.
The borders were sealed to people and not the transportation of goods, the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with Turkish government protocol.
The violence on the border came hours after Erdogan held a four-way video conference with the leaders of France, Germany and Britain to discuss the migrants crisis.
A statement from Erdogan’s office said the four leaders also discussed ways of resolving the Syria conflict and providing humanitarian aid in Syria's troubled Idlib province. It didn't immediately provide further details.
Tuesday's teleconference between Erdogan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was arranged after the European leaders cancelled plans to travel to Istanbul due to the coronavirus crisis.
The violence at the Greek-Turkish border has added to concerns in Athens over the high number of migrants arrivals from Turkey — at a rough average of 100 per day on the Greek islands so far this year — adding to severe overcrowding at refugee camps there.
Greek authorities Wednesday imposed movement restrictions, lasting for at least one month, at the island camps as part of public safety measures for the coronavirus pandemic.
Migrants on Lesbos and four other islands will only be allowed to visit towns on the islands in small groups and for limited periods, the Migration Affairs Ministry said. The ministry said it was also speeding up plans to build detention facilities on the islands.
No infections have been confirmed at any of the camps, though the extent of testing at those sites remains unclear.
More than 9,300 people have reached Greece — mostly arriving on the eastern islands — from Turkey so far this year, although the rate has slowed over the past week.
Elena Becatoros and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Greece and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey contributed.
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