PAZARKULE, TURKEY – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened on Saturday to allow thousands of refugees to enter Europe and warned that Damascus would "pay a price" after the deaths of dozens of Turkish soldiers in Syria.
About 13,000 migrants have gathered along the Turkish-Greek border, said the International Organization for Migration (IOM) while several thousand migrants were in a skirmish, with Greek police firing tear gas through the border.
The escalating tensions between Turkey and Russia, which are supporting opposing forces in the Syrian conflict, after an air strike killed Turkish troops raised fears of a wider war and a new migration crisis for l & # 39; Europe.
Erdogan said he would allow refugees to travel to Europe from NATO member Turkey.
"What did we do yesterday? We opened the doors," said Erdogan in Istanbul.
"We will not close these doors … Why? Because the European Union should keep its promises."
He was referring to a 2016 agreement with the European Union to stop the flow of refugees in exchange for billions of euros in aid.
Turkey is already hosting 3.6 million Syrian refugees.
Thousands of people spend a "cold night" at the border
Erdogan's comments were his first since 34 Turkish soldiers have been killed since Thursday in the Idlib region of northern Syria, where Moscow-backed Syrian regime forces are fighting to take back the last rebel enclave.
Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said nearly 50,000 migrants had left Turkey for Europe via the western province of Edirne, bordering Greece, in published comments in the official Anadolu news agency.
But IOM said its staff had observed "at least 13,000 people gathered along the 212-kilometer (130-mile) border.
"Thousands of migrants, including families with young children, spend a cold night along the border between Turkey and Greece," he said.
There were skirmishes on the Turkish-Greek border at Pazarkule on Saturday, when Greek police fired tear gas to repel thousands of migrants who threw stones at them, according to an AFP photographer on the places.
"Look who teaches us international law!" Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted. "They shamelessly launch tear gas canisters at thousands of innocent people piled on their doors."
In 2015, Greece became the main entry point to the EU for one million migrants, mostly refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war.
The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, expressed her "concern" about the unimpeded flow of migrants from Turkey to the bloc's external borders in Greece and Bulgaria.
"Our top priority at this stage is to ensure that Greece and Bulgaria have our full support," she tweeted.
In Athens, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis held an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis.
"We have avoided over 4,000 attempts to enter our land borders illegally," government spokesman Stelios Petsas said after the meeting.
A Greek police source said the migrants had started fires and opened holes in the border fences.
Police and soldiers patrolled the banks of the Evros, a common crossing point and issued loudspeaker warnings not to enter Greek territory.
The Greek coast guard said that from early Friday to early Saturday, 180 migrants reached the islands of Lesbos and Samos, crossing the eastern Aegean from the Turkish coast.
An inflatable boat arrived early Saturday in Lesbos, carrying 27 African migrants, many of them women, who were crying and praying on their knees, said an AFP journalist.
The UN says nearly one million people – half of whom are children – have been displaced by fighting in northwest Syria since December, forced to flee in freezing cold.
New strikes in Syria
Turkey said its forces had destroyed a "chemical warfare facility" just south of Aleppo.
Syrian state media have denied the attack and the existence of such a facility.
Turkish drone strikes killed 26 Syrian soldiers on Saturday, an independent war observer said after Erdogan threatened the regime to "pay the price" for its attack.
The British-based Human Rights Observatory said the strikes "were aimed at positions of regime forces in the Idlib and Aleppo campaign".
The murder of Turkish troops by forces of President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russian air power, has raised tensions between Ankara and Moscow.
Erdogan spoke to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the phone on Friday. He could travel to Moscow next week for talks, according to the Kremlin.
But the Turkish leader remained critical on Saturday.
"I asked Mr. Poutine:" What is your activity there? "" Said Erdogan. "If you establish a base, do it but move away from us and leave us face to face with the regime."
French President Emmanuel Macron called on Russia and Turkey to establish a "lasting ceasefire" in the Idlib region, after separate phone calls with the leaders of the two countries, a statement said. office.
Seeking support from Europe after Idlib's losses, Erdogan told Macron that Ankara wanted to see "clear and concrete support" for NATO "not only in words but in acts ", according to the Turkish Presidency.
Erdogan also warned that the humanitarian crisis "would only get worse unless the regime's attacks are stopped in Syria".
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