Macedonian troops fire stun grenades at migrants on border

Almost 39,000 migrants, most of them Syrians, have registered as passing through Macedonia over the past month, double the number from the month before.

Alexandros Avramidis/REUTERS
Migrants confront Macedonian police during clashes at the Greek-Macedonian border, August 21, 2015. Macedonian police drove back crowds of migrants and refugees trying to enter from Greece on Friday after a night spent stranded in no-man's land by an emergency decree effectively sealing the Macedonian frontier. A Reuters reporter said tear gas was fired and saw at least four bloodied migrants taken for treatment on the Greek side of the border.

Macedonian special police forces fired stun grenades Friday to disperse thousands of migrants stuck on a no-man's land with Greece, a day after declaring a state of emergency on its border to deal with a massive influx of migrants heading north to the European Union.

A crowd of 3,000 migrants who spent night out in the open made several attempts to charge Macedonian police Friday, a day after after the border was shut to crossings. At least eight people were injured in the melee, according to Greek police.

One youngster was bleeding from what appeared to be shrapnel from the stun grenades that were fired directly into the crowd.

Police backed by armored vehicles also spread coils of razor wire over rail tracks used by migrants to cross on foot from Greece to Macedonia.

Hours after the clashes, Macedonian police started letting small groups of families with children cross the border by walking along the railway tracks to the railway station in the Macedonian town of Gevgelija.

The migrants, many with babies and young children, spent the chilly and windy night in a dusty field without food and with little water. Some ate corn they picked from nearby fields.

"I don't know why are they doing this to us," said Mohammad Wahid, an Iraqi. "I don't have passport or identity documents. I cannot return and have nowhere to go. I will stay here till the end."

Greece has seen an unprecedented wave of migrants this year, the vast majority fleeing war and conflict in Syria and Afghanistan. More than 160,000 have arrived so far, mostly crossing in inflatable dinghies from the nearby Turkish coast — an influx that has overwhelmed Greek authorities and the country's small Aegean islands.

Yet few, if any, of the migrants arriving want to remain in Greece, a country in the grip of a financial crisis. The vast majority head straight to the country's northern border with Macedonia, where they cram onto trains and head north through Serbia and Hungary on their way to the more prosperous EU countries such Germany, the Netherlands and those in Scandinavia.

Last weekend, there had been chaotic scenes at the station as hundreds of migrants struggled to board trains.

Macedonian police spokesman Ivo Kotevski said both police and the army would control the 30 mile border stretch to stop a "massive" influx of migrants coming from Greece.

"This measure is being introduced for the security of citizens who live in the border areas and for better treatment of the migrants," he said Thursday.

Until now, the border has been porous, with only a few patrols on each side. Sealing it disrupts the Balkan corridor for migrants who start in Turkey, take boats to Greece or walk to Bulgaria, then make their way through Macedonia or Serbia heading north to the EU.

Almost 39,000 migrants, most of them Syrians, have registered as passing through Macedonia over the past month, double the number from the month before.

On Greece's eastern islands, hundreds of migrants arrive each day in overladen, often unseaworthy boats. The Greek coast guard said Friday that a patrol boat from Europe's border agency Frontex had spotted a capsized boat off the island of Lesbos. One migrant was found dead and 15 others were rescued.

Separately, the coast guard said it had picked up 620 people in 15 search-and-rescue operations in the last 24 hours off the islands of Lesbos, Samos, Agathonissi, Leros, Farmakonissi, Kos and Megisti. That doesn't include the hundreds more who have reached the islands on their own.

A Greek government-chartered ferry carrying about 2,200 mainly Syrian refugees from the island of Lesbos — which sees the highest number of arrivals in Greece — was due to reach Athens later Friday, the coast guard said.

Thousands of refugees waiting to head for Athens and then the border with Macedonia are stuck on Lesbos, as it is hard to find ferry tickets at the height of the summer holiday season.

Before heading for Lesbos, the Eleftherios Venizelos ferry had been used as a floating refugee registration center on Kos, another island close to the Turkish coast where hundreds of people arrive daily in small boats.

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