ATHENS - Greek police have arrested six migrants suspected of setting fires that razed the country’s biggest refugee camp, sparking a humanitarian crisis that has left more than 12,500 asylum seekers without shelter.
The suspects, all Afghan nationals, include two minors. They were arrested after counterterrorism and national intelligence units deployed on the island of Lesbos identified them in video captured by witnesses during the fire that devastated the overcrowded Moria camp last week.
The minors are due to appear before special prosecutors in the northern cities of Thessaloniki and Katerini, where they were transferred along with 320 other teenage migrants evacuated from Moria soon after the blaze, police spokesman Theodore Chronopoulos told VOA.
He said all other suspects were being held on Lesbos and were set to appear before a prosecutor to be charged and face probable deportation.
From the outset, officials have blamed militant camp residents for deliberately setting the Moria fire after quarantine measures were imposed following the discovery of 35 COVID-19 cases at the site.
“More are out there,” Chronopoulos said. “This investigation is far from over to pull back the intelligence and counter-terrorism units from the island.”
At least five fires, including at a local refinery, have been set across Lesbos since the devastating blaze at Moria — all suspected acts of arson that authorities believe could be related.
Tuesday’ arrests follow a lawsuit which the governor of the island, Kostas Moutzouris, filed with authorities earlier this week, accusing an aid group of inciting an insurrection on the island.
The suit targets Stand By Me Lesvos, a nonprofit organization among scores of groups increasingly being scrutinized by the conservative government in Athens as intelligence officials suspect human smugglers or radical extremists have been operating in refugee camps under the guise of aid workers.
“It’s high time that Greece finally take serious account of who it is letting roam free in these camps, and for those individuals to face stiff reprisals, if found accountable,” Moutzouris told VOA. “Lesbos and its people have already paid dearly for the failings of Europe’s migration policy. We won’t stand for such antics.”
The suit stems from a contentious comment posted on the Facebook account of the Stand By Me Lesvos group about 30 minutes after the ferocious fire started at Moria.
“After Moria,” the post read, “Lesbos will go down. Moria finish… Moria destroyed,” the post read.
The post, obtained by VOA, has since then been taken down from the group’s social media page. Organizers with Stand by Me Lesvos, including a number of international activists mainly from Germany and Norway, say they are being scapegoated.
“Seriously?” quipped Thomas Van De Ostensacken, a senior member contacted by telephone on Tuesday. “Camp and other officials had information that this place was about to go up in flames days, three days before the blaze occurred. And now they are now turning on us?”
“Let them,” he said. “We have nothing to hide. This suit will fall flat in any court.”
Since taking office last year, the government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has moved to crack down on illegal immigration, imposing stiff rules and oversight controls to better regulate non-governmental organizations operating on Lesbos, a key landing pad for thousands of asylum seekers streaming into Europe through Turkey.
The moves have been blasted by human rights groups including Amnesty International, which called it part of a campaign to criminalize humanitarian work in a climate turning increasingly hostile towards migrants and refugees across Europe.
More than 110 NGOs with 8,000 aid workers operated on Lesbos alone during the height of the refugee crisis in 2016.
Now, by contrast, less than half of the groups remain on the island with about 17 aid groups operating within Moria, before the fenced camp with its chaotic sprawl of tents went up in flames last week.