By MYSTISLAV CHERNOV and SUZAN FRASER
EDIRNE, Turkey (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to be in Brussels next week for a one-day working visit, his office said amid a charged conflict between Turkey and the European Union over migrants and refugees.
Thousands of migrants headed for Turkey’s land border with Greece after Erdogan’s government said last week that it would no longer prevent migrants and refugees from crossing over to EU territory. Greece deployed riot police and border guards to repel people trying to enter the country from the sea or by land.
A statement from Erdogan’s office said he would travel to Brussels on Monday. The statement did not specify where he would be during his one-day visit or the nature of the work taking him to the Belgian capital, but the European Union’s headquarters are in Brussels.
The announcement came hours after European Union foreign ministers meeting in Croatia on Friday criticized Turkey, saying it was using the migrants’ desperation “for political purposes.”
More clashes erupted Saturday between Greek police and Europe-bound migrants gathered on the Turkey side of a border crossing near the Greek village of Kastanies. Like previous confrontations this week, officers in Greece fired tear gas to impede the crowd and Turkish police fired tear gas back at their Greek counterparts.
Journalists saw groups of mostly young men trying to pull down a fence with ropes and throwing rocks at the Greek border forces. At least two migrants were injured.
A Greek government statement issued Saturday said that around 600 people, aided by Turkish army and military police, threw tear gas at the Greek side of the border overnight. There were several attempts to breach the border fence, and fires were lit in an attempt to damage the barrier, the statement said.
“Attempts at illegal entry into Greek territory were prevented by Greek forces, which repaired the fence and used sirens and loudspeakers,” the statement read.
Thousands of migrants have slept in makeshift camps near the border since the Turkish government said they were free to go, waiting for the opportunity to cut over to Greece.
“It is very difficult, but there is hope, God willing,” said Mahmood Mohammed, 34, who identified himself as a refugee from Syria’s embattled Idlib province.
Another man who identified himself as from Idlib said he was camped out in western Turkey both to get away from the war at home and to make a new life for his family in Europe or Canada after crossing through the border gate.
Erdogan announced said last week that Turkey, which already houses more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, would no longer be Europe’s gatekeeper and declared that its previously guarded borders with Europe are now open.
The move alarmed EU countries, which are still enduring political fallout from a wave of mass migration five years ago.
Erdogan has demanded that Europe shoulder more of the burden of caring for refugees. But the EU insists it is abiding by a 2016 deal in which it gave Turkey billions in refugee aid in return for keeping Europe-bound asylum-seekers on its soil.
In a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday, Erdogan said the Turkey-EU migration deal is no longer working and needs to be revised, according to the Turkish leaders’s office.
The European foreign ministers acknowledged Turkey for hosting millions of migrants and refugee, but said the 27-nation EU “strongly rejects Turkey’s use of migratory pressure for political purposes.” The ministers called the situation at the Greece-Turkey border unacceptable and said the EU was determined to protect its external boundaries.
Greek authorities said they thwarted more than 38,000 attempted border crossings in the past week and arrested 268 people — only 4% of them Syrians. They reported reported 27 more arrests Saturday, mostly of migrants from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Greece has described the situation as a threat to its national security. In response it has suspended asylum applications for a month and said it will deport new arrivals without registering them. Many migrants have reported crossing into Greece, being beaten by Greek authorities and summarily forced back into Turkey.
Turkish authorities say one migrant was killed by bullets fired by Greek police or border guards near the border crossing. Greece denies the accusation. A child also drowned off the island of Lesbos when a boat carrying 48 migrants capsized.
On Saturday, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu renewed accusations of Greek authorities mistreating migrants.
“Their masks have fallen. The ruthlessness of those who gave lectures on humanity has become evident,” Soylu said.
Soylu claimed that some 1,000 Turkish special operations police deployed on the border had started to thwart the actions of the law enforcement teams assembled by Greece to drive the migrants back.
The minister also predicted that Greece would not be able to “hold on to its borders” during the summer, when the river that delineates most of the Turkey-Greece border gets shallower and easier to cross.
Soylu has said Erdogan instructed Turkish authorities to prevent migrants from attempting to reach the Greek islands in dinghies to avoid “human tragedies.” Hundreds have drowned attempting the comparatively short but dangerous voyage from Turkey’s coast.
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press reporters Costas Kantouris in Kastanies, Greece and Demetris Nellas in Athens contributed.
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