SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — A rift between Macedonia and Greece over the refugee crisis deepened Monday, with Macedonia accusing its southern neighbor of not reacting to prevent hundreds of migrants and refugees from attempting to breach a border fence between the two countries.
Macedonia’s foreign ministry asked Greece to fully engage its police forces to prevent what it called the violent rioting of migrants. The call came a day after seven-hour clashes between Macedonian security forces and hundreds of migrants and refugees who attempted to break through the border fence at an impromptu refugee camp housing more than 11,000 people near the Greek village of Idomeni.
Macedonian authorities fired tear gas and rubber bullets, and medical aid agencies said they treated about 300 people, including children, for respiratory problems and injuries. Macedonia said 14 police offers and nine soldiers were wounded.
Greek police observed from their side of the border and did not intervene, while the Greek government strongly criticized the “indiscriminate use of chemicals, plastic bullets and stun grenades against vulnerable people.”
A few hundred people also protested in Idomeni Monday, marching to the razor-wire border fence carrying a Greek and German flag, but no violence was reported.
More than 53,000 people who made their way to Greece from Turkey have been stranded in the country since Balkan and European nations shut their land borders to them to stem the largest refugee flow the continent has seen since World War II. Greece has been frantically building new refugee camps, but does still not have the capacity to house them all.
Those in Idomeni have refused to leave the sprawling camp, made up mostly of small tents pitched along railway tracks and in fields, in the hope the border might open. Activists have circulated in the camp over the past few weeks, distributing fliers urging camp residents to protest and make a push on the fence.
The Macedonian foreign ministry said Skopje has been continuously requesting from Athens “cooperation, information sharing and preventive action to dissuade violent rioting of migrants and illegal border crossing from Greek into Macedonian territory.”
The “establishment of law and order in the borderline zone, in and around the migrant reception centers, is essential to prevent such incidents in the future,” the ministry said.
It added that Macedonian security forces, along with police officers of several EU member states deployed at the border, were attacked by migrants throwing stones and they responded “swiftly and accordingly.”
The ministry claimed that while tear gas was fired, “no other riot control means were used” — despite clear evidence of rubber bullets being used, with migrants and reporters on the Greek side of the border collecting scores.
The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said the border clashes are “a matter of great worry.”
Greece criticized the Macedonian police response as excessive.
The incidents, and the use of tear gas and rubber bullets in a refugee camp, “is a big embarrassment for European civilization, and for countries that want to become a part of European civilization,” Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said Monday, referring to Macedonia’s years-long efforts to join the EU.
Tsipras said the blame for the violence was shared with the activists spreading rumors in the camps of border openings and instigating protests. But he also said “unilateral decisions that shut the borders” contributed to the situation.
Balkan and some European nations began restricting the flow of migrants and refugees through their land borders earlier this year, eventually shutting them completely in early March. The European Union reached a deal with Turkey last month under which land borders were shut to refugees and those arriving on Greek islands from the Turkish coast from March 20 onwards are being returned to Turkey.
On Monday, Greek authorities said only 18 people entered Greece by sea over the past 24 hours, a week after the EU-Turkey deal went into effect.
Arrivals, mostly in frail smugglers’ boats from Turkey, peaked above 200,000 in October. Following last month’s agreement the numbers have dropped, with just 1,704 arrivals so far this month — about 189 daily.
Steffen Seibert, the government spokesman for Germany, the country the vast majority of refugees want to reach, said the German government was ” viewing with concern both the difficult living conditions in the provisional camp (of) Idomeni as well as the events that have occurred at the Greece-Macedonia border over the last 24, 48 hours.”
Seibert declined to condemn Macedonia’s use of tear gas, saying simply that borders need to be protected “in accordance with international rules.”
Elena Becatoros and Nicholas Paphitis in Athens, Frank Jordans in Berlin and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed.
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