KASTANIES, Greece — With tear gas clouding the air, thousands of migrants trying to reach Europe clashed with riot police on the Greek border with Turkey on Saturday morning, signaling a new and potentially volatile phase in the migration crisis.
The scene at Kastanies, a normally quiet Greek border checkpoint into Turkey, rapidly became a tense confrontation with the potential to worsen as dozens of Greek security officers and soldiers fired canisters of tear gas. Riot police with batons, shields and masks confronted the migrants through the wire, yelling at them to stay back.
About 4,000 migrants of various nationalities were pressed against the Turkish side of the border. An additional 500 or so people were trapped between two border posts but still on the Turkish side, at the long and heavily militarized land border that has turned into the flash point of the tug of war between Turkey and Europe.
Some people had climbed onto the limbs of trees or were crouching against the thick loops of barbed wired placed on the ground by the Greek army. They cheered, booed and screamed to be let through.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey declared Saturday that he had opened his country’s borders for migrants to cross into Europe, saying that Turkey could no longer handle the numbers fleeing the war in Syria.
“What did we do yesterday?” he said in a televised speech in Istanbul. “We opened the doors.” His comments were his first to acknowledge what he had long threatened to do: push some of the millions of Syrian refugees and other migrants in Turkey toward Europe in order to cajole the European Union to heed Turkey’s demands.
He accused European leaders of not keeping their promises to help Turkey bear the load of millions of Syrian refugees.
Erdogan has also called for European support for his military operations against a Russian and Syrian offensive in northern Syria that has displaced at least 1 million more Syrians toward Turkey’s border. He has also sought more support for the displaced and the 3.6 million Syrian refugees already in Turkey.
The migrants at the border had heeded Erdogan’s call and rushed to Turkey’s borders with Europe, some on Friday taking free rides on buses organized by Turkish officials. But once at Europe’s doorstep, they were met with a violent crackdown.
Migrants were also heading by sea to the Turkish coast, from where they hope to reach Greek islands, facilitated by Turkish authorities, but officials reported few arrivals Saturday, perhaps because of poor weather at sea.
The miniexodus was livestreamed by Turkish state television in scenes reminiscent of the 2015 migrant crisis that Europe had solved only with Turkey’s help. Syrians shared information, some joking about the Turkish facilitation, suggesting they should publish the telephone numbers of people smugglers, too.
The International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency, said that as many as 10,000 were making their way through Turkey to the northern land borders in hopes of reaching Europe.
Greek authorities said Saturday that they had intercepted some 4,000 people attempting to cross at various spots of the 50-mile border overnight, and only a few had been successful and made it to Greece.
The frontier is heavily militarized on both sides and is closed off with barbed wire only for about 7 miles, running through fields, valleys and forests and partly demarcated by the Evros River and its delta, where migrants have long perished because of choppy waters.
Even if the Greek officials succeed in holding back the hundreds at the small border chokehold in Kastanies, it will be hard to secure the entire border as migrants become dispersed and try their luck farther afield.
Most on the front line of the confrontation at the Kastanies crossing were men, but children were heard screaming farther back, and women were hanging on the side of the group stuck between the Turkish and Greek officials.
The ground was strewed with empty Turkish tear-gas canisters, rocks and burned-out tree branches; and the Greek guards pledged a standoff for as long as it took into the cold night and beyond.
Greece “came under an illegal, mass and orchestrated attempt to raze our borders and stood up protecting not only our frontiers but those of Europe too,” said Stelios Petsas, the Greek government spokesman. He added that 66 migrants had been arrested crossing the land border illegally, and “none have anything to do with Idlib.”
“Our government is determined to do whatever it takes to protect our borders,” he said.
Erdogan’s comments Saturday came after Turkey suffered heavy losses from Russian or Syrian airstrikes in northwestern Syria on Thursday and as Turkey seeks U.S. and European support for its Syrian operations. The death toll from the strikes has risen to 36, Erdogan said. More than 30 soldiers were wounded in the strikes.
The Turkish leader has avoided accusing Russia directly of carrying out the airstrikes and has spoken with President Vladimir Putin of Russia by telephone. But he said Turkey was retaliating with strikes of its own, including on a Syrian chemical weapons site south of the city of Aleppo. Turkey has deployed thousands of troops in recent weeks into the Idlib province to try to stem the Russian-backed advance.
Erdogan is struggling to handle the growing crisis in Idlib, the last Syrian province held by the rebel forces his government has supported. Turkey has lost more than 50 soldiers in the past two months in Syria, which has angered many Turks, while domestic resentment toward Syrian refugees has grown amid an economic downturn.
The Turkish president called on Putin to “get out of our way” in Idlib and allow Turkey to push back Syrian forces to positions agreed on under a 2018 de-escalation agreement.