ISTANBUL - As Greece works to turn back the thousands of migrants who are trying to cross the border from Turkey, the Turkish government is boosting its forces by deploying an additional 1,000 police officers to the border area.
The action comes in the wake of accusations by Ankara that Greek security forces fired on migrants and killed six of them in the week that followed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's decision Feb. 28 to open Turkey's borders and release the migrants into Western Europe.
Turkey Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the additional deployments are meant to prevent Greek security forces from sending the migrants back to Turkey, a practice the Turkish official described as illegal.
"They [Greek security forces] wounded 164 people. They tried to push 4,900 people back to Turkey," Soylu told reporters at a location near the Greek border on Thursday. "We are deploying 1,000 special force police to the border system ... to prevent the pushback."
Six migrants were shot, one fatally, according to a statement Wednesday by the governor's office of the Turkish border city of Edirne. The same report said the men were shot in the legs, feet and groin, and that one person was shot in the head. Athens dismissed the report as "fake news."
Greece, EU face criticism
International rights groups are condemning the tactics employed by Greek guards at the border.
"It's a very disturbing sight. Greek border guards are repeatedly using tear gas to force back crowds of people," said Turkey researcher Andrew Gardner of Amnesty International, speaking close to the Turkish-Greek border. "There are reports of injuries, and we've seen at least three ambulances rushing to the border."
The latest violence took place as leaders of the European Union visited Greece Wednesday in a display of solidarity. Backing Athens's tough stance, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen described Greece as an "aspida," Greek for "European shield."
"Praising Greek border guards using tear gas and other violent means to prevent a crossing at the land border and engaging in dangerous, and possibly criminal, behavior against asylum-seekers," said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. "If the EU's highest officials are willing to turn a blind eye to such abuses and violations of international law, they will invite more of the same."
Last week, Erdogan took the EU by surprise, announcing that Turkey can no longer carry the burden of hosting 4 million refugees, and that Turkish authorities would no longer stop those wanting to enter neighboring countries of EU members.
"This a desperate attempt to get Europe's attention, and it achieved that end," said Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "Turkey wants to renegotiate the refugee deal of 2016, and seeks more funding for the refugees already in Turkey."
The 2016 migration deal between Turkey and the EU ended the mass movement of refugees into Europe from Turkey. However, Erdogan accuses Brussels of failing to honor its financial commitments, along with a series of political concessions, including EU visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. Brussels countered, blaming Ankara for failing to honor its obligations.
But the deepening crisis on the Greek border seems to be focusing European leaders' minds on trying to find a solution to the migration crisis.
Is Turkish leader succeeding?
On Monday, Erdogan quipped that Europe's leaders are now "queuing" up to speak to him. President Charles Michel of the European Council met the Turkish president on Wednesday.
However, analysts suggest domestic politics could also be driving Erdogan's new hard-line EU stance. Last week's lifting of border controls coincided with the killing of over 30 Turkish soldiers in Syria.
"There is the goal, which is changing the domestic debate. I think after the Syrian and Russian attack on Turkish forces, you have had a significant outrage in the Turkish public," said Aydintasbas.
Therefore, the new story about the refugees and Turkish border somehow change the Turkish debate, and almost channels this anger about the Syria policy back to the Europeans."
Last month, Ankara reinforced its military presence in Syria's Idlib province in a move to prevent Damascus from overrunning Syrian rebels' last stronghold.
Erdogan is pledging not to allow Idlib to fall to Damascus, warning it would trigger millions of new refugees into Turkey. The Turkish president is now seeking to link the fate of Idlib to the current refugee crisis with the EU.
"If European countries want to solve the migration crisis, they should support Turkey's political and humanitarian solutions in Syria," Erdogan told Parliament on Wednesday.
The Turkish president is looking to European countries to back his plan to create a safe haven in Idlib, protected by a no-fly zone. The strategy appears to be gaining some traction.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced support Monday for a safe haven. On Wednesday, Stef Blok, Dutch minister of foreign affairs, tweeted, "The humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in #Idlib is immense. Another million refugees are forced to flee. That is why I call for de-escalation and talks between the EU, Russia & Turkey about a no-fly zone for Assad above Idlib."