Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras accused neighboring Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) on Monday of “shaming” Europe by firing tear gas and rubber bullets at migrants desperately trying to break through a border fence.
Tensions were still running high after Sunday's violence, which saw 250 migrants and refugees hurt at the flashpoint Idomeni crossing as they tried to force their way into FYROM.
“Faced with people who were clearly not armed and constituted no serious threat, they attacked with chemicals, with tear gas and rubber bullets,” Tsipras told reporters, blaming FYROM police.
“This is a great shame for European culture and for countries who want to be part of it,” he said, calling on the EU and the UN refugee agency UNHCR to take a stand as Europe struggles cope with its worst migration crisis since World War II.
It was the latest violence to erupt at Idomeni, where more than 11,000 migrants have been living rough for weeks after Balkan states closed their borders, cutting off access to western Europe.
Many are refugees fleeing war in Syria and Iraq.
But FYROM, which has aspirations to join the European Union, hit back.
It accused Greek police of failing to intervene as around 3,000 migrants “violently” tried to cross the frontier, hurling stones and other objects in a bid to break down the fence.
Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said 200 people suffered breathing problems, 30 sustained injuries from rubber bullets – three of them children under 10 – and 30 had other injuries.
Tensions were still high on Monday although there was no immediate repeat of the weekend clashes.
“Protesters in Idomeni have dragged a train wagon in front of the police bus. Tensions are high,” MSF said in a tweet. An hour later, it said another 200 people were heading for the border, but described the situation as “quite calm”.
The makeshift encampment at Idomeni, where people are living in squalid conditions, has become a symbol of the misery faced by thousands who have fled war and poverty to reach Europe and Greek efforts to move them into nearby reception centers have so far been unsuccessful.
Germany said it was watching developments there “with concern” and urged all states to ensure border security was strictly in line with human rights.
“We are watching with concern the difficult living conditions in the provisional camp Idomeni and the events of the past 24 to 48 hours on the Greece-Macedonia border,” said Steffen Seibert, spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Asked about the actions of the FYROM border guards, he said: “Controlling the borders must, in every country, be in line with international legal standards.”
He urged migrants to leave Idomeni and move into official shelters set up by Greece and not to attempt to cross the border illegally.
“Trying to cross the border… is not a hopeful option,” he said.
The European Commission also reiterated calls for the people blocked at Idomeni to be relocated, with spokeswoman Mina Andreeva warning them not to push ahead with “a dangerous and irregular onward journey”.
Sunday's incident began when leaflets in Arabic were distributed around the camp falsely suggesting the border was about to open, prompting Greece to double its police presence in the area.
Sunday's violence has only served to escalate the row between Athens and Skopje.
Countries which display behavior “incomprehensible and unacceptable to humanity certainly have no place in the EU or NATO,” Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos said.
“I am referring to FYROM specifically.”
Skopje has furiously defended its actions, saying 23 of its border police were injured in the incident and accusing the Greek police of failing to lift a finger to stop the protesters.
It also denied using any kind of bullets against the crowd.
MSF, however, confirmed treating “30 to 40 people” for such wounds, among them women and children. “According to their accounts, Macedonian police fired on them,” spokesman Jonas Haeensen said.
The Greek government said it had lodged two “very strong protests” with FYROM authorities.