On Friday, about 35 Turkish soldiers crossed over the border into Greece and established a military occupation of a floodplain on the eastern bank of the Evros River near the Greek city of Feres. The soldiers set up a military camp and refused Greek requests to return to Turkey. The Evros river marks about 100 miles of the border between the two countries but it frequently changes its route, leading to confusion. This horseshoe section Evros is usually flooded in the winter but this year it is dry. The Turkish incursion was reportedly a response to a Greek army survey of the 1.6-hectare site as part of plans to build additional border fences.
The Greek Foreign Affairs Ministry in Athens lodged a protest with Turkey, demanding the Turkish soldiers pull back from the region but Turkey has not complied.
The border between the two countries is a very hot topic as Turkey hosts more than four million refugees from Syria. In February, Turkey led a military incursion into Syria in an attempt to conquer swaths of land to resettle Syrian refugees it had been hosting. Turkey was widely criticized for the incursion and responded by relaxing restrictions, thereby allowing about 10,000 fleeing Syrian refugees en route to Europe to arrive at the border with Greece. The Evros River currently does not have a fence on either side of its banks and many tried to cross into Greece. Despite the lack of a fence, crossing the river is considered quite dangerous.
In March, Bulgarian authorities, at the request of Greece, opened the Ivaylovgrad Dam upstream to widen the river and make it more difficult to cross.
The Greek army had reportedly been working along that section of the river in preparation for establishing a strong border fence to prevent crossings by refugees.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias denied claims of a conflict, saying that the incursion by the Turkish army was the result of a misunderstanding. in an interview with Skai TV, Dendias acknowledged that “a presence of Turkish forces has been observed in a strip of land where some preparatory works had been made by the Greek army.” He noted that the confusion arose as the Greek government would not give Turkey the coordinates of its fence expansion in Evros in advance. He also noted that the Greek government asked Turkey “not to make any other move in the area.”
“We will proceed with the fence expansion. It is our constitutional obligation to protect Greek soil”, Dendias said.
— Greekcitytimes (@greekcitytimes) May 23, 2020
The Evros River has been a hotspot with live fire exchanged between Turkish and Greek security forces. Most of the gunfire comes from the Turkish side and in at least two instances in the Evros region, at least 50 rounds were fired at Greek soldiers. Last month, Greek security forces fired tear gas at refugees challenging the border and Turkish police returned fire, shooting tear gas at Greek police. Also in April, German officials inspecting the Greek border were targeted by gunfire from a Turkish soldier. Turkish warplanes have also been warned after straying into Greek airspace.
Relations between Turkey and Greece have been strained since Turkey invaded and occupied about 40% of northern Cyprus in 1974. Around 150,000 people amounting to more than one-quarter of the total population of Cyprus, and to one-third of its Greek Cypriot population was expelled from the occupied northern part of the island, where Greek Cypriots constituted 80% of the population. A little over a year later in 1975, roughly 60,000 Turkish Cypriots, amounting to half the Turkish Cypriot population were displaced from the south to the north.
There have been numerous confrontations between warplanes and naval vessels in the intervening years with occasional casualties on both sides.
Both countries are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and have defense agreements that include the US.