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Erdogan asks Putin to stand aside as Ankara deals with Syrian government forces

The Turkish president also heaped pressure on the EU, who he accused of not paying dues from 2016 migrant deal
Despite being allies, Turkey and Russia find themselves on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict (AFP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has urged President Vladimir Putin to stand aside in Syria and allow Turkish forces to deal with Syrian government forces alone, days after they killed 33 Turkish soldiers in an air strike.

Erdogan also turned up the heat on the European Union, vowing to open the door for refugees to head into the bloc, amid reports of clashes between Greek police and thousands of refugees who have already reached the Greek border.

Turkey to open Idlib border and allow Syrian refugees free passage to Europe
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Backed by Russia, Syrian government forces have since December waged an assault to capture Idlib, the last bastion of territory held by Turkey-backed rebels.

But speaking in Istanbul on Saturday, Erdogan said he asked Putin to leave Turkey “to do what is necessary” with the Syrian government.

"We did not go there because we were invited by (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad). We went there because we were invited by the people of Syria. We don't intend to leave before the people of Syria say 'okay, this is done'," Erdogan said.

The comments were Erdogan’s first since the death of Turkish soldiers in a Syrian government air strike on Thursday, which increased tensions between Istanbul and Moscow.

Russia’s foreign ministry said on Saturday that both countries have agreed to reduce tensions on the ground in Idlib, but would continue military action there.

Meanwhile, a commander in the regional alliance backing Assad said Turkish attacks near the city of Saraqeb in Idlib killed nine members of Iran-backed Hezbollah and wounded 30 others late on Friday, according to Reuters.

The commander said that the Turkish strikes targeted Hezbollah headquarters using smart missiles and drones.

Greece and Bulgaria

Meanwhile, Greek authorities said they have prevented thousands of refugees from entering the country, a day after Istanbul promised to permit them to travel into the EU, of which Greece is a member.

"Greece yesterday came under a organised, mass, illegal attack...a violation of our borders and endured it," government spokesman Stelios Petsas said after an emergency meeting with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. 

"We averted more than 4,000 attempts of illegal entrance to our land borders." 

One hundred and eighty migrants reached the Greek islands just off the coast of Turkey in sea crossings between early Friday and early Saturday, the Hellenic Coast Guard said.

'We have to do everything... to provide Turkey with the necessary means so that it can take the migrants back and take care of them'

-Boyko Borissov, Bulgarian prime minister

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said there was no migration pressure on the Balkan country's border with Turkey, but that he would be meeting with Erdogan on Monday to seek long-lasting solutions.

"We have to do everything possible next week very quickly, until Wednesday, Thursday at the latest, to provide Turkey with the necessary means so that it can take the migrants back and take care of them," he told reporters.

Erdogan continued to dial up the pressure on the EU further, claiming that 18,000 migrants have already crossed Turkey’s border with neighbouring EU countries, a number that could rise to between 25,000-30,000 on Saturday.

Turkey’s borders to Europe were closed to migrants and refugees under a 2016 agreement in which the EU agreed to provide billions in aid. But Erdogan complained that funds were arriving too slowly.

"What did we do yesterday (Friday)? We opened the doors," Erdogan said. "We will not close those doors ...Why? Because the European Union should keep its promises. We don't have to take care of this many refugees, to feed them."

Erdogan added that Turkey, which already hosts 3.6m Syrian refugees was overburdened and could not handle the almost one million Syrians displaced by fighting since December.

"We are not in a situation to handle a new wave of refugees," he said.