Archive for March 1, 2016

February 28, 2016

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey all but turned a blind eye last year as more than 850,000 people, most of them Syrians, slipped into Greece from Turkey on smugglers’ boats. Now it’s promised the European Union that will change.

A view of the Aegean Sea as seen aboard a rescue vessel from MOAS, Migrant Offshore Aid Station, a Malta-based organization aimed to rescue migrants on sea, as it patrols between the eastern Greek Island of Agathonisi and Turkish shores, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016. Greece is mired in a full-blown diplomatic dispute with some EU countries over their border slowdowns and closures. Those border moves have left Greece and the migrants caught between an increasingly fractious Europe, where several countries are reluctant to accept more asylum-seekers, and Turkey, which has appeared unwilling or unable to staunch the torrent of people leaving in barely seaworthy smuggling boats for Greek islands. About 20,000 migrants are stuck in Greece, authorities say.

Since reaching a deal with the EU in November, Turkey has stepped up its counter-smuggling efforts, increasing sea patrols, detaining thousands before they make the sea crossings, cracking down on trafficking groups and raiding workshops that produce bogus lifejackets or dinghies.

In return for trying to stem the flux, Turkey is set to receive a 3 billion-euro ($3.3 billion) fund to help it deal with the refugee crisis, a much-awaited easing of EU visa restrictions for Turkish citizens and sped-up EU membership talks.

The government — under pressure to get results before a key meeting March 7 with the EU — is upbeat, insisting the measures have already made a “visible difference.” But the thousands of migrants still entering Greece every week paint a different picture, underscoring the uphill battle that Turkey and Europe face.

“There has been a visible decrease in the numbers of migrants crossing illegally,” Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told journalists. But he quickly added: “To reduce the numbers to zero, however, is impossible. No country has the power to do so.”

The International Organization for Migration says more than 102,500 people have crossed into Greece and more than 7,500 into Italy this year. Last year, that number wasn’t reached before June. For Turkey to take control of a land-and-sea border that exceeds 10,000 kilometers (6,215 miles) is a huge challenge. The Aegean coast is deeply indented by coves and bays, a perfect venue for smugglers. A senior Turkish government official conceded that stemming the tide of refugees is a “complex task” and it would take time for Turkey’s “major efforts” to produce results. He requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

In response to the crisis, NATO has ordered three warships to sail to the Aegean Sea to help Greece, Turkey and the EU border agency Frontex conduct sea patrols. In the meantime, Turkey has its own migration issues. The number of refugees Turkey is now hosting has swelled to 3 million — 2.6 million of them from Syria — so that last year Turkey overtook Pakistan as the country with the largest refugee population in the world. Along with that, Turkey remains on the main transit route for migrants heading to Europe.

Turkey last year stopped 156,000 migrants attempting to make the illegal journey, including 91,000 caught at sea, Kurtulmus said. It also apprehended nearly 4,800 smugglers in 2015, half of who are on trial or face prosecution, he said.

Last month, Turkey started to require Syrians arriving from third countries to apply for visas in a bid to exclude those who aim to continue on to Greece. It also has agreed to grant work permits to Syrians as an incentive for them to stay in Turkey.

The government has vowed to increase the coast guard’s ability to patrol the coast and plans to pass a law that would make human smuggling an organized crime or even a “terror crime,” allowing courts to hand down stiffer punishment.

To encourage refugees to build new lives in Turkey, Ankara has also vowed to make sure that all school-aged Syrian refugee children attend school in the 2016-2017 academic year. Currently, only 350,000 of the approximately 650,000 refugee children go to school, a government official said.

In a dramatic police operation last month, authorities raided workshops in the Aegean coastal city of Izmir and elsewhere that were manufacturing defective lifejackets that were being sold to migrants. More than 1,200 lifejackets were seized. Earlier this month, police also raided three factories in Izmir that were producing poor-quality inflatable boats to smuggle migrants to Greece.

As it tries to prevent the flow of migrants to Europe, Turkey is also constructing a wall along parts of its 910-kilometer (560-mile) border with Syria, mainly to prevent infiltrations by Islamic State militants. In a reversal of its long-standing open door-policy for refugees, Turkey recently closed its border to tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing a Russian-backed Syrian government onslaught around northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Turkish authorities decided instead to help the displaced by expanding and setting up new camps close to the border in Syria.

Sylvie Guillaume, a vice president of the European Parliament, told reporters during a visit that Turkey and the EU must work together to crack down on the smugglers by tracking their finances. “It’s a flourishing business,” Guillaume said. “It is an industry in which people are making millions on the backs of people who then die at sea. Financial surveillance and inspection mechanisms need to be developed” to uncover these gangs.

Associated Press reporters witnessed stepped-up police measures this month at the town of Ayvacik, a major crossing point for migrants heading to the Greek island of Lesbos. At the scene, police detained scores of migrants hiding amid bushes, waiting for smugglers to take them across the water. On the sea, Turkish coast guard boats intercepted smuggling boats full of migrants and escorted them back to shore.

“We know the organizers’ crossing points and we are taking extremely effective measures against them,” Kurtulmus said. “With our strong measures, the numbers will (decrease) further.”

Mehmet Guzel contributed from Ayvacik and Istanbul.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

The latest attacks on the Turkish capital Ankara were carried out by the PKK and PYD, noting that the world “has to give up its double standards in order to facilitate fighting terror,” the Anadolu Agency reported the country’s foreign minister saying yesterday.

Speaking during his visit to the area where the attacks took place last week, Mevlut Cavusoglu said: “All terrorist groups must be fought indiscriminately … otherwise, terror will win.” He reiterated that Turkey will fight “all forms of terror until the end.”

“Daesh, PYD, PKK, Al-Nusra Front and the Revolutionary Popular Liberation Party are all terrorist organisations and anti-humanity. Fighting these groups is continuous internally and externally.”

“We will clarify that there is cooperation between the PYD and PKK as the prime minister already announced twice. He disclosed documents that the Ankara attack was carried out in cooperation between the two groups and the world has to know this,” he stressed.

Source: Middle East Monitor.


February 27, 2016

IDOMENI, Greece (AP) — Macedonia reopened its border to Iraqi and Syrian asylum-seekers on Saturday, hours after migrants protested peacefully on the Greek side of the border, demanding admission into Macedonia.

Haider Sahd, a U.N. field officer in Macedonian town of Gevgelija, confirmed the border opening to the Associated Press. According to Greek police, Macedonia will admit 300 migrants Saturday. Macedonian authorities said the number let in could reach 350. A similar number of migrants, who had entered Macedonia earlier in the week, boarded a train in Gevgelija on Saturday, heading to Macedonia’s border with Serbia.

Macedonia had effectively shut down the border to all migrants since late Thursday night, enraging the Greek government. Macedonia has repeatedly said it has only slowed down or shut down migrant flows in response to bottlenecks further up along the Balkans migrant route.

In two separate protests Saturday, about 450 refugees gathered close to the fence marking the Greece-Macedonian border, carrying placards reading “Open the border” and shouting the same slogan. Before Macedonia decided to open its border, about 6,000 migrants had crowded a nearby tent camp, braving rainy weather overnight, Greek police said. Another 500 migrants are camped at a gas station 17 kilometers (10 miles) away.

Although the protests were peaceful, tempers were fraying among the migrants. “No one can stop the refugees, because people are dying in Syria and Iraq,” said Mohamed Kamel, 39, an Iraqi Kurd from Kirkuk, who was traveling with his wife and 7-year-old daughter.

“People (at the camp) are hungry and angry,” Kamel added. “If this situation continues, we will break down the fence.” In Athens, about 300 protesters marched to the Austrian embassy, demanding unfettered passage for refugees. Austria has taken the lead in slowing down the refugee flows from Balkan countries, a decision that has strained its relations with Greece.

Testorides reported from Skopje, Macedonia. Demetris Nellas and Raphael Kominis contributed from Athens, Greece.

February 26, 2016

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Kosovo’s Parliament on Friday elected Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci as the country’s new president in the absence of opposition lawmakers who accuse him of being responsible for two deals with Serbia and Montenegro that they reject.

The election committee said Thaci secured 71 votes among the 81 lawmakers that were present in the third round of voting after failing to reach the minimum requirements in the first two rounds. The other candidate, Rafet Rama, got no votes and 10 votes were declared invalid.

Many of the opposition lawmakers in the 120-seat Parliament were suspended from participation after disrupting the legislature with tear gas. Others left and only one remained at the election commission.

“With the greatest pleasure, with the highest responsibility, I will serve to everyone and be willing to cooperate with everyone, including the political parties and every segment of the Kosovan society,” Thaci told The Associated Press.

The opposition has been disrupting the chamber since last September with attacks involving tear gas, pepper spray, whistles and water bottles to reject a deal between Kosovo and Serbia giving more powers to ethnic Serbs in Kosovo. In December, the Constitutional Court ruled that the agreement needed to be amended to conform to the constitution.

The opposition also rejects a border demarcation pact with Montenegro. “Someone who has violated the constitution cannot be Kosovo’s president,” the leader of the main opposition Self-Determination Movement Party, Visar Ymeri, said at a news conference.

The prospect of a Thaci-presidency has prompted thousands of opposition supporters to protest in the capital of Pristina, many hundreds of whom have been camping out in tents in the capital’s Skanderbeg Square.

After learning that Thaci won the election, they threw Molotov cocktails and rocks outside Parliament, injuring 21 officers, police said. Police responded with tear gas and water guns to disperse them and five protesters were arrested. Officers also started to remove the tents raised at the Skanderbeg Square and blocked traffic on some streets surrounding Parliament.

Police said they found 39 Molotov cocktails and 38 other bottles with color paint by the tents. Molotov cocktails were also thrown against Prime Minister Isa Mustafa’s home, according to police. Meanwhile, hundreds of Thaci’s supporters celebrated his election walking along the capital’s streets holding Kosovo, U.S. and Albanian flags and shouting his name while firecrackers lit the sky.

Many leading figures within the opposition were partners with Thaci — a former guerrilla leader — during the war, but later turned against him, accusing him of being power-hungry and corrupt. Critics also say the 47-year-old, who led the fighters of Kosovo’s successful separatist war against Serbia in 1998-99, is not a unifying individual, which is what the Kosovo constitution requires.

“Thaci’s election has closed that door,” said Fatmir Limaj, one of his former close associates now in opposition, referring to attempts by incumbent President Ahtifete Jahjaga to resolve the political crisis.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008, although that is rejected by Serbia. As president, Thaci would deal with a special war crimes court created last year, which will have international judges and prosecutors try ethnic Albanian guerrillas for the alleged killing of civilian detainees, mostly Serbs, immediately after the war ended in 1999.

Thaci was mentioned in a 2010 Council of Europe report which claimed that leaders of the now disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Serbs, Roma and ethnic Albanians suspected of collaborating with Serbs.

Thaci denies the claims. Thaci has resigned as leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo as required for his five-year term.

Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, and Gresa Kraja in Pristina, Kosovo, contributed to this report.