Macedonian troops fire stun grenades at refugees on border

Standoff on Greek border is latest flashpoint in what EU calls biggest refugee crisis since World War II

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

A crowd of 3,000 refugees who spent night out in the open made several attempts Friday to charge Macedonian police after the border was shut to crossings the previous day. At least eight people were injured in the melee, according to Greek police, while Reuters reported that at least 10 people appeared to faint as the refugees pressed against Macedonian police lines. 

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 refugees to cross on foot from Greece to Macedonia.

Macedonian authorities, however, denied any clashes had taken place. Interior Ministry spokesman Ivo Kotevski told news agency Agence France-Presse that there was “no incident, no tear bombs ... nothing like that on Macedonian side.”

Later Friday, Interior Ministry spokesman Ivo Kotevski told Reuters that Macedonia was allowing some refugees to enter from Greece. 

"We are allowing entry to a number that matches our capacity to transport them or to give them appropriate medical care and treatment," Kotevski said. 

The standoff on the Greek-Macedonian border is the latest flashpoint in what the EU itself last week called the biggest migration crisis the continent has faced since World War II. Europe's interior and foreign ministers will meet in mid-October to discuss how to respond to the huge influx of migrants and refugees arriving at its borders. 

Police had earlier prevented reporters from accessing the area where on Thursday officers had been in a standoff with about 1,500 migrants and refugees who wanted to cross into Macedonia. Most of the refugees are from Syria, but there are also significant numbers of Afghans and Bangladeshis, Antonis Rigas, of Doctors Without Borders, told Al Jazeera.

But with the numbers of refugees blocked on the Greek side building up during the night, tensions rose.  The refugees, 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 of Iraq. “I don't have passport or identity documents. I cannot return and have nowhere to go. I will stay here till the end.”

“There are hundreds of vulnerable persons — children, babies, other persons with extreme vulnerabilities including medical needs. Most of them, if not all of them, stay in the open air. We do appeal to the Greek authorities to take all necessary measures to address the humanitarian needs of the persons gathered on the border line," Petros Mastakas, an associate protection officer at the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, told Al Jazeera. 

‘I don’t know why are they doing this to us ... I don’t have passport or identity documents. I cannot return and have nowhere to go. I will stay here till the end.’

Mohammad Wahid

refugee from Iraq

Greece has seen an unprecedented wave of refugees 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 refugees 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.

Macedonian police spokesman Ivo Kotevski said both police and the army would control the 30-mile border stretch to stop a "massive" influx of refugees 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 refugees 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 refugees, most of them Syrians, have registered as passing through Macedonia over the past month, double the number from the month before.

"We want to go to Germany to find a new life because everything has been destroyed in Syria," said Amina Asmani of Syria, holding her husband's hand and watching her 10-day-old son, who was born on a Greek island during her journey.

She had fought her way past baton-wielding Macedonian riot police in Gevgelija and managed to board a train that took her a step closer to her dream destination: Germany.

"The policemen let us on the train only because they felt sorry for the baby," she said.

On Greece's eastern islands, hundreds of refugees arrive each day in overloaded, 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. 

Al Jazeera and wire services

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