Tensions as Greece, Macedonia trade blame for tear gas incident

A group of migrant men attempt to tear apart the fence during a protest at the northern Greek border point of Idomeni, Greece, Sunday, April 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Amel Emric)

A group of migrant men attempt to tear apart the fence during a protest at the northern Greek border point of Idomeni, Greece, Sunday, April 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Amel Emric)

Fresh protests broke out Monday at a flashpoint border crossing, as Greece and Macedonia blamed each other for an incident in which tear gas and rubber bullets were fired on migrants trying to breach the closed border to get to western Europe.

Greece lashed out at Macedonia for using “excessive force”. Macedonia however hit back and accused police on the Greek side of failing to intervene as around 3,000 migrants “violently” tried to cross the frontier in Sunday’s incident.

Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said 260 people were treated for injuries after the flare-up on the Greece-Macedonia border: 200 for breathing problems, 30 for wounds caused by plastic bullets and 30 for other injuries.

It was the latest violence to erupt at the flashpoint Idomeni crossing, where around 11,000 migrants have been living rough for weeks after Balkan states closed their borders, cutting off access to western Europe.

Many of them are fleeing war in Syria and Iraq.

MSF said in a tweet that tensions were high in Idomeni on Monday with fresh protests.

“Protestors in Idomeni have dragged a train wagon in front of the police bus. Tensions are high,” it said.

MSF spokesman Jonas Haeensen added: “We have treated 30 to 40 people, mostly men but also women and children, for injuries across the body caused by rubber bullets.

“According to their accounts, Macedonian police fired on them,” he said.

Macedonian police accused crowds of hurling stones and other objects at them in a bid to break down a fence at the border, saying they had used tear gas to protect themselves.

But a spokesman for the Greek migration coordination agency, Giorgos Kyritsis, blasted the Macedonian reaction as totally unwarranted and out of proportion.

He told Vima radio station that there had been “an excessive and asymmetrical use of force” that had created a “very difficult situation on Greek soil”.

The Greek government said it had lodged two “very strong protests” with Macedonian authorities, while Kyritsis said it had also “launched action against other European countries which have sent police observers to the Macedonian side,” including Slovenia and Hungary.

– Migrants ‘violent’ –
A statement from the Macedonian interior ministry said 23 of its security forces were injured in Sunday’s incident, in which “migrants violently tried to enter Macedonia from Greece”.

It added that primary estimations showed “more than 3,000 migrants took part in the incidents, in which Greek police did not try to intervene and stop them”.

Macedonian police have denied using any kind of bullets.

Tensions had mounted in the Idomeni camp on Sunday a day after pamphlets were distributed in Arabic saying the border would be reopened.

Greek authorities were aware of the tract and had doubled the police presence at the frontier on Sunday.

The makeshift encampment at Idomeni, where people are living in squalid and overcrowded conditions, has become a symbol of the misery faced by thousands who have fled war and poverty to reach Europe.

Efforts by the Greek authorities to persuade migrants to leave Idomeni and move to nearby reception centres have not been successful, with many people preferring to stay put in the hope the border will be opened.

Sunday’s incident came a day after four women and a child drowned off the Greek island of Samos, in the first deaths in the Aegean Sea since a controversial EU-Turkey deal to stem the flow of refugees took effect three weeks ago.

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