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Riot Police Pulled From Greek Islands After Clashes Over New Camps

Riot Police Pulled From Greek Islands After Clashes Over New Camps

ATHENS — The Greek government was scrambling on Thursday to resolve an escalating crisis on the Aegean Islands, after violent clashes with residents forced it to withdraw most of the riot police officers it had sent to guard the sites of planned migrant camps.

Hundreds of officers were dispatched this week to the islands, where camps already hold thousands of migrants, in response to increasingly angry protests over the construction plans.

But their presence only heightened tensions. Dozens of officers and 10 residents were injured on Wednesday in clashes on Lesbos and Chios, with two officers sustaining shotgun wounds. Much of the force boarded ferries back to the mainland on Thursday.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was to meet with the islands’ mayors later Thursday in an attempt to thrash out some kind of compromise, but his government remained adamant that it would proceed with its plans.

It says new, more secure reception centers are needed to replace existing facilities, where intense overcrowding has led to hundreds of tents being pitched around the perimeters.

“There is no alternative plan — it’s the only one we have,” a government spokesman, Stelios Petsas, told Greek television on Thursday. “Our priority is to create the closed camps, and then we can tackle overcrowding.”

Neither residents nor the local authorities on the islands are inclined to believe the government’s promise that it will close the older facilities, and opposition to building more has been intense.

Since the government announced its plans last November, islanders have staged a series of strikes and protests, scaling up their opposition this week after the riot police were sent in.

On Wednesday, an angry crowd numbering nearly 1,000 besieged an army camp hosting police officers sent to Lesbos, with some residents wielding homemade firebombs and shotguns.

Of the 43 officers injured on Lesbos, two sustained shotgun wounds, the police said. Nine more officers were injured on Chios, where protesters burst into a hotel used by officers, dragged them out of their beds and beat them up before throwing their belongings from the windows.

Speaking by telephone from the ferry to Athens from Lesbos, a police spokesman, Lt. Theodoros Chronopoulos, said that two people had been arrested in Chios and that those responsible for the shootings were being sought.

“It’s all being investigated,” he said, adding that tensions had eased on the island.

Mr. Petsas, the government spokesman, attributed the riots to “extreme elements,” saying they did not represent the majority of islanders who had protested peacefully in recent weeks.

Either way, tensions between the central government and local officials are at new heights, raising doubts about the prospects of a compromise.

A key interlocutor in negotiations in recent weeks, the governor for the northern Aegean, Kostas Moutzouris, will not attend the meeting with Mr. Mitsotakis on Thursday, Mr. Petsas said, citing a video posted on social media showing the governor talking disparagingly about the prime minister.

Lesbos — and, to a lesser extent, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros — have borne the brunt as thousands of migrants have crossed from Turkey in recent years.

Although the influx is now far below the thousands of daily arrivals at the peak of the crisis in late 2015 and early 2016, it has put ever more pressure on overcrowded camps, with rights groups warning of an increasingly desperate situation.

Mr. Mitsotakis, a conservative, won power last year on a pledge to take a harder line on migration than his leftist predecessor, Alexis Tsipras. His government has stepped up the returns of migrants rejected for refugee status to Turkey as well as the transfer of migrants from island camps to the mainland, while accelerating a slow-moving asylum process.

But another of its proposals, for the installation of a floating barrier in the Aegean Sea to avert smuggling boats, has been widely criticized as both inhumane and possibly ineffective.


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