In night of violence, Greeks try to block access to migrant camp building sites

ATHENS (Reuters) – Police in riot gear threw teargas and fired water cannon at Greek islanders as they tried to prevent access to construction sites for new migrant detention centers by setting fires, hurling flares and blockading the gates.

Locals on Lesbos and Chios are worried that the centers, which would replace temporary camps with open access, will leave the islands permanently overcrowded.

Vowing to press on with the building work, authorities say closed centers will offer greater public safety and limit potential health risks, particularly given the potential spread of the coronavirus in other countries.

“It is clearly evident that matters such as the coronavirus can be dealt with swiftly and effectively in a closed facility and not an anarchic, open facility which is a health time bomb,” government spokesman Stelios Petsas said.

There are currently no cases in Greece.

Locals run amid tear gas smoke as they try to prevent the arrival of a ferry carrying riot police reinforcements sent for monitoring the creation of a new closed migrant detention centre, at the port of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, Greece, February 25, 2020. REUTERS/Elias Marcou

The authorities moved to send police reinforcements to the islands to deal with the protests, prompting more clashes as islanders tried to prevent the arrival of the ferries.

Condemning what he called a “day of shame”, Costas Moutzouris, governor of the northern Aegean region, branded the deployment “extremely aggressive” and announced a decision by local authorities there to hold a 24 hour general strike on Wednesday against the actions of the central government, the Athens News Agency reported.

Witnesses said about 500 people attempted to block the unloading of heavy machinery overnight to break ground at the construction site on Lesbos.

Clashes between protesters and police broke out and fires burned on the streets and in the roadside brushland, ignited by the flares. Similar tensions were reported on Chios, where residents also say they are bearing the burden of the refugee crisis.

In addition to Lesbos and Chios, Greek authorities plan to construct closed detention facilities on Samos, Kos and Leros. The islands are close to Turkey, from where thousands of asylum seekers head to Europe each year.

Hundreds of thousands of people crossed into Europe from Turkey via Greece in 2015 and 2016 before a deal brokered by the European Union limited the flow. There has, however, been a resurgence in arrivals since September 2019.

The overcrowded Moria camp on Lesbos accommodates more than 18,000 people in conditions aid organizations say are appalling.

The conservative government has taken a markedly tougher stance towards migration compared to the previous leftist government, issuing a tender for the construction of a floating fence to deter asylum seekers arriving by sea and introducing faster processing procedures that could increase deportations.

(Reporting by Angeliki Koutantou, writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Alison Williams)

Israel strikes Hamas in Gaza, calling attack response to rocket fire

A Palestinian fisherman walks on a beach in the southern Gaza Strip June 13, 2019. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli aircraft attacked a Hamas target in Gaza on Thursday after a Palestinian rocket strike, the Israeli military said, in the first serious cross-border flare-up since a surge in fighting last month.

The latest hostilities followed Israel’s closure of offshore waters to Gaza fisherman on Wednesday in what it said was a response to incendiary balloons launched across the frontier that caused fires in fields in southern Israel this week.

In a statement, the military said fighter planes attacked “underground infrastructure” in a compound belonging to the Hamas militant group that rules the Gaza Strip. There were no reports of injuries.

The military said it was responding to a rocket fired from Gaza overnight that was intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

In two days of heavy fighting in early May, projectiles from Gaza killed four civilians in Israel, local health officials said, and Israeli strikes killed 21 Palestinians, over half of them civilians, according to Gaza health authorities.

A truce mediated by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations ended that round of violence.

Some two million Palestinians live in Gaza, whose economy has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades as well as recent foreign aid cuts and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’s rival in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Israel says its blockade is necessary to stop arms reaching Hamas, with which it has fought three wars since the group seized control of Gaza in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its settlers and troops from the small coastal enclave.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Gareth Jones)