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Dozens hurt in refugee camp clashes at Macedonian border

Police fire tear gas near the Idomeni crossing, northern Greece, where thousands of refugees and migrants remain stranded
A boy looks through a fence as migrants and refugees hold a protest to call for the reopening of the Greek-Macedonian border at Idomeni, on 7 April, 2016 (AFP)

Dozens of people were hurt on Sunday when police fired tear gas at hundreds of refugees and migrants as they tried to break through the Greek-Macedonia frontier, where over 11,000 people are stranded.

It was the latest violence to erupt at the flashpoint Idomeni crossing, where huge numbers of people have been camped out since mid-February after Balkan states closed their borders, cutting off access to northern Europe.

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

French medical charity Doctors Without Borders said many suffered breathing problems but confirmed they had also treated several people for injuries caused by plastic bullets.

The incident was sparked by fresh rumours that the Idomeni border crossing into Macedonia, largely closed since mid-February, was about to open.

According to a Greek police source, hundreds of people had gathered by the fence to demand the border be opened. When they tried to force the barrier, Macedonian police began firing tear gas.

At the scene, protestors with their faces covered with scarves or smeared with toothpaste as a makeshift protection against tear gas could be seen hurling rocks at the fence, a correspondent for the AFP news agency said.

Part of the fence appeared to have been torn down.

Others ran for cover as tear gas grenades exploded nearby, sending clouds of gas wafting into the air.

"Dozens of people were hurt, mainly suffering respiratory problems, and three had to be taken to hospital," MSF's Achileas Tzemos told AFP.

But he also said several people were injured by plastic bullets, a charge denied by Macedonian police.

"We are not using any kind of bullets as they are forbidden by law in Macedonia. We are not using batons as we are on the other side of the fence," spokeswoman Liza Bendevska told AFP.

The protest came after rumours in the camp that Macedonia was going to open the border. Similar rumours a fortnight ago also triggered an unsuccessful attempt to rush the fence.

Idomeni has been the site of a refugee camp since last summer. In March there was a similar incident when Macedonian police fired tear gas at a group of demonstrators who tried to smash through the border fence.

The closing of borders in the Balkans led ultimately to an EU-Turkey agreement that came into force at the beginning of April.

When refugees arrive at Idomeni, they are given a number. There are about 50 people to each number, and they go through the border according to this system.

A family interviewed by Middle East Eye in March had about 6,000 people ahead of them in the queue to have their paperwork processed.

Abdullah Saleh estimated that it would be about a month before he could cross the border.

“I’m already tired of waiting - my family are already tired - and people are crossing so slowly,” he said.