Thousands of migrants may be in no man’s land between Turkey and Greece after Ankara opened its western borders, sparking chaotic scenes as Greek troops attempted to prevent refugees from entering Europe en masse.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, claimed 18,000 migrants had crossed the border, without immediately providing supporting evidence, but many appear to have been repelled by Greek border patrols firing teargas and stun grenades.
Erdoğan has long threatened to allow refugees and migrants transit into the EU, with which Turkey signed an accord in 2016 to stem westward migration in return for financial aid.
He stressed the frontier would remain open. “We will not close these doors in the coming period and this will continue,” he said in Istanbul on Saturday. “Why? The European Union needs to keep its promises. We don’t have to take care of this many refugees, to feed them.”
Erdoğan complained that funds transferred to Turkey from the EU to support refugees were arriving too slowly, saying he had asked Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, to send them directly to his government.
But the policy shift appears to be intended to force the EU and Nato to support Ankara’s new military campaign in Idlib, Syria’s last rebel stronghold, where thousands of Turkish soldiers are supporting opposition forces facing an onslaught from regime forces backed by Russian air power.
The Idlib offensive has pushed almost a million displaced civilians toward the Syrian-Turkish border. In the largest single loss of life to Turkish forces since their country became involved in the Syria conflict in 2016, at least 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike on Thursday night in the north-western province.
After officials briefed on Friday that police, coastguard and border guards had been ordered to stand down, meaning passage to Europe would be no longer prevented, refugees and migrants made haste to Turkey’s borders with Greece and Bulgaria.
They were met by Greek border patrols firing teargas and stun grenades, sparking chaos as crowds of people attempted to enter the country.
Greek authorities said 52 warships and patrol boats were patrolling the seas around Lesbos, along with other Aegean isles, in an apparent show of force to deter clandestine voyages. Bulgaria has sent an extra 1,000 troops to its border with Turkey.
On Saturday morning high winds on Lesbos were preventing arrivals, but thousands more migrants and refugees – believed to be largely Afghan men – were primed to make the perilous journey.
There are more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, along with many others fleeing war and poverty in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Turkey’s borders to Europe were closed to migrants following a £5.2bn deal with the EU in 2016 after more than a million people crossed into Europe by foot.
As that policy was effectively reversed, Erdoğan claimed that the number of people entering Europe from Turkey could rise to up to 30,000 on Saturday.
He also said he had told Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, to end his support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria so that Turkey could more easily battle Assad’s forces.
“We did not go [to Syria] because we were invited by [Assad],” he said. “We went there because we were invited by the people of Syria. We don’t intend to leave before the people of Syria [say] OK, this is done.”
Syrian and Russian warplanes kept up airstrikes on the strategically important Idlib city of Saraqeb on Saturday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. There were reports that nine Assad-supporting Hezbollah forces were killed by Turkish smart missiles and drones.
Russia’s foreign ministry said on Saturday that the two sides had agreed this week to reduce tensions on the ground in Idlib, though military action will continue, after Nato envoys held emergency talks at the request of Turkey, a member of the alliance.
While urging de-escalation in Idlib, Nato offered no immediate assistance but said it would consider strengthening Ankara’s air defences.
The UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, called for an immediate ceasefire and said the risk of ever greater escalation was growing by the hour, with civilians paying the gravest price.