OUTSIDE SARAQEB, Syria/ANKARA (Reuters) – Refugees in Turkey headed toward European frontiers on Friday after an official declared that borders had been thrown open, a response to the escalating war in Syria where 33 Turkish soldiers were killed by Russian-backed Syrian government troops.

Moscow and Ankara traded blame over the strike in northwest Syria, the deadliest attack suffered by Turkey’s army in nearly 30 years. The U.N. Security Council called an emergency meeting to avert open conflict between Russia and NATO member Turkey.

Donald Trump, in a telephone conversation with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, condemned Thursday’s attack on Turkish troops and reaffirmed U.S. support for Ankara’s efforts to avert a humanitarian disaster in Syria, a White House spokesman said.

The two leaders also said Syria and Russia must halt their offences in northwest Syria, spokesman Judd Deere said.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the escalation of fighting was “one of the most alarming moments” of the Syrian war and called for an immediate ceasefire.

Turkey’s neighbors Greece and Bulgaria reinforced their borders in response to Ankara’s threat to reopen the frontier, shut under an accord that halted the 2015-16 migration crisis when more than a million people crossed into Europe by foot.

“We have decided, effective immediately, not to stop Syrian refugees from reaching Europe by land or sea,” a senior Turkish official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

“All refugees, including Syrians, are now welcome to cross into the European Union,” the official said, adding that police and border guards had been stood down.

Within hours, a column of dozens of migrants was heading on foot toward the European frontier in the early morning light.

“We heard about it on the television,” said Afghan migrant Sahin Nebizade, 16, in a group packed into taxis on a highway.

At the Pazarkule border post with Greece, scores of migrants faced barbed wire fences and smoke grenades. Some stuck in the no-man’s land between the two countries tried to return to the Turkish side to escape the smoke, only to be turned back.

Hamid Muhammed, who carried a young girl, said he had been turned back by Greek police: “We want the Turkish and European governments to open this gate.”

Greece’s prime minister said no unauthorized crossing would be allowed. Bulgaria’s prime minister said the prospect of a new migration crisis was even more of a threat when European countries were struggling to respond to the coronavirus.

The EU noted that Ankara had made no formal announcement of any change in policy at the border.

A MILLION DISPLACED

Inside Syria there was ample evidence of the renewed fighting that has caused perhaps the worst humanitarian crisis of the nine-year-old war.

Migrants react as they walk to the Turkey’s Pazarkule border crossing with Greece’s Kastanies, in Pazarkule, Turkey, February 28, 2020. REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir

A million civilians have been displaced since December inside Syria near the Turkish border in desperate winter conditions. Turkey, already home to 3.7 million Syrian refugees, says it cannot take more.

Reuters journalists at the front line saw huge clouds of white smoke as government forces struck the town of Saraqeb, an important crossroads captured by rebels this week in a rare push-back against the government’s advance.

Rebel fighters sped down highways in pick-up trucks mounted with artillery. In the provincial capital Idlib, wounded fighters in jeans and camouflage jackets were carried into a clinic on trollies.

Medical charity Medicins Sans Frontieres said it had asked Turkey to allow the transit of vital humanitarian aid and medical staff to help the refugees in northwest Syria.

Syria’s civil war has worsened dramatically in recent months despite largely vanishing from Western countries’ agendas. Government forces, backed by Russian air power, have launched an assault to capture the northwest, the last remaining territory held by rebels backed by Turkey.

With diplomacy sponsored by Ankara and Moscow in tatters, Turkey has come closer than ever to direct confrontation with Russia on the battlefield.

Turkey’s Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone on Friday. The Kremlin said they agreed on the need for a new arrangement to avert clashes. Turkey said the leaders agreed to meet as soon as possible.

“There is a risk of sliding into a major open international military confrontation,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Twitter.

The return of refugees to the frontier was a reminder of Western Europe’s biggest migration since World War Two: the 2015-2016 crisis when 4,000 people drowned trying to reach Greece before Turkey shut the border in return for EU cash.

Slideshow (18 Images)

“At a time when we are imposing stricter border monitoring over the coronavirus, imagine if we have an inflow of hundreds of thousands of migrants,” Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said. “We cannot afford that.”

Turkey, long the main ally of rebels battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, has recently sent thousands of troops and heavy military hardware into Idlib.

Thursday’s air strike was the worst on Turkey’s military since a 1993 attack by Kurdish separatists.

Turkey’s defense minister said it occurred despite coordination with Russia. Moscow said the Turkish troops should not have been in the area, and Ankara had failed to say where they were.

Additional reporting by Daren Butler, Ezgi Erkoyun, Ali Kucukgocmen, Can Sezer and Ceyda Caglayan in Istanbul, Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, and Anton Kolodyazhnyy, Tom Balmforth, Andrew Osborn in Moscow; Writing by Jonathan Spicer, Peter Graff and Gareth Jones, Editing by Robert Birsel, Simon Cameron-Moore, Timothy Heritage and Mike Collett-White



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