The Latest: Cyprus wants Turkish ports opened to agree deal

AP News
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Posted: Mar 17, 2016 1:55 PM
The Latest: Cyprus wants Turkish ports opened to agree deal

BRUSSELS (AP) — The Latest on European efforts to respond to the migration crisis (all times local):

6:50 p.m.

An official says Cyprus would agree to lift any objections to reinvigorating Turkey's European Union membership talks if Ankara opens its ports and airports to Cypriot ships and aircraft.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he's not authorized to discuss ongoing negotiations publicly, said Cyprus had blocked five policy areas, or chapters, in Turkey's EU membership talks because Ankara would not extend its customs union with the bloc and allow Cypriot ships and aircraft into its ports and airports.

The official, who spoke during Thursday's meeting of an EU leaders' summit on the migration crisis, said all bloc members "fully understand" Cyprus' position and that no EU leader tried to persuade Cyprus to change tack.

Turkey had insisted that the five policy areas be unblocked before it would agree to a deal that would send back thousands of migrants who had made their way from Turkey to Europe.

—Menelaos Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus.

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5:45 p.m.

Authorities in Greece say nine people from Greece and Iraq have been arrested after allegedly using use a light aircraft to transport stranded migrants from western Greece to Italy.

Police and judicial authorities said Thursday that the arrests were made a day earlier as arrangements were being made to transport a group of migrants from a flight club outside the western Greek town of Missolonghi. The suspects include a light aircraft pilot and a former municipal official from the town.

More than 40,000 refugees and migrants are stranded in Greece following border closures and restrictions by Austria and several Balkan countries — leaving many to turn to smugglers to try to reach western Europe.

Police said the alleged smugglers in Missolonghi had used the aircraft to transport drugs to western Europe but had recently switched to migrant-trafficking.

Migrants were charged between 4,500 and 7,500 euros ($5,100-8,500) each for the trip to Italy, police said.

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5:20 p.m.

Austria's top police official 1,090 people were detained for human smuggling last year, more than double than in 2014.

Konrad Kogler said Thursday the comparative number in 2014 was around 500. That was before the migrant crisis erupted.

With nearly 90,000 people seeking asylum in Austria as of December, the country has introduced a cap of 37,500 this year, suggesting that all over that limit won't be allowed entry unless they are transiting the country with plans to apply elsewhere in the EU.

Numbers have dropped sharply since Austria and its eastern neighbors on the West Balkans route shut their borders to most migrants last month.

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5:15 p.m.

Greece's prime minister says he wants EU leaders to hammer out a deal that will halt the flow of migrants from Turkey to Greece and will instead offer a legal way for refugees to resettle in Europe.

Alexis Tsipras told reporters that he also wants the deal to help accelerate the relocation of migrants from Greece to other EU nations. He said any deal should offer Greece more help to deal with thousands of migrants stuck along the country's northern border after other countries closed their borders to migrants.

He said Greece faces a humanitarian crisis "because of the unilateral actions" of some countries along the Balkan migrant route.

Tsipras was speaking before Thursday's EU summit focused on finalizing a deal to send thousands of migrants back to Turkey.

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5:10 p.m.

Hungary's prime minister says that any deal on the migrant crisis between the European Union and Turkey must include assurances that his nation won't be forced to take in a quota of refugees.

Viktor Orban said that "we have been working for days to ensure that Hungarian interests, that any kind of refugee exchanges, settlement or population movements take place exclusively on a voluntary basis."

Under an outline agreement, Syrians would be sent to the EU for resettlement among its member states. Hungary has long had objections to any mandatory resettlement among EU nations.

He said that "if there is an agreement with the Turks, then only sections should be included in which the settlement of arrivals from Turkey should be managed on a voluntary and not an obligatory basis."

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4:40 p.m.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel says that the Turkish negotiating tactics during talks with the European Union about the migration crisis sometimes feel like blackmail.

Since most of the million-plus migrants that have come into the EU over the past year left from Turkey, EU leaders at Thursday's summit need a deal with Ankara to stop the flow. But many have said that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu drives a very hard bargain.

Michel said that "Turkey is really asking for a lot. I refuse to accept negotiations that sometimes resemble a form of blackmail."

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4 p.m.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is predicting that migrants would stop leaving Turkey for the European Union within a month under a new deal being thrashed out with Ankara.

Rutte told reporters Thursday that "we expect this to stop in three to four weeks." His remarks came before an EU summit focused on finalizing a deal to send thousands of migrants back to Turkey.

The Dutch premier warned that is imperative to reach an agreement with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu by Friday.

Rutte said that "if we cannot work this out tonight and tomorrow, I don't see how we would be able to do it later."

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3:25 p.m.

The president of Cyprus says Turkey must open its airports and ports to Cypriot ships and planes if it wants to join the European Union — a standoff that is hampering efforts to seal an EU-Turkey migrant agreement.

President Nicos Anastasiades said Thursday that "every candidate country should fulfill its obligations and it's obvious that unfortunately, until now, Turkey hasn't."

As part of a package of sweeteners aimed at getting Turkey to take back tens of thousands of refugees, the EU is offering to speed up membership talks with Ankara.

But Cyprus insists that Turkey must extend an EU-wide customs agreement to the Mediterranean country.

Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup aimed at union with Greece. Turkey refuses to recognize the Greek-Cypriot government.

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2:35 p.m.

Refugees trapped in Greece have held peaceful protests in the country's main port, demanding that European countries open their borders to let them reach the continent's prosperous heartland.

About 350 people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan took part in the peaceful protests at Piraeus, the port of Athens, where some 4,000 people are stranded. They held up signs reading "Open the borders" and "We are humans too."

Also Thursday, U.S. actress Angelina Jolie, a United Nations refugee agency special envoy, visited refugee and migrant shelters on the eastern island of Lesbos. That's where most of the more than a million people who reached Greece from Turkey on flimsy smugglers' boats over the past 15 months landed.

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2:15 p.m.

European Union auditors have issued a harsh verdict on some past efforts to control external migration. They say those efforts lacked a clear strategy and were poorly monitored, and that it was impossible to measure their results.

Daniele Lamarque, a member of the EU Court of Auditors, presented the report Thursday on EU-funded projects approved for Algeria, Georgia, Moldova, Morocco and Ukraine in 2007-13. She said the total amount charged to the EU budget couldn't be determined by the audit, and that it was unclear whether the bloc's funds were spent in keeping with intended geographic and policy priorities.

The auditors' recommendations include establishing a framework for assessing performance and focusing EU resources on clearly defined goals.

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1:15 p.m.

Turkey's coast guard says 54 Afghan migrants were intercepted in the Aegean Sea as their dinghy sped toward the Greek island of Lesbos, and were returned to Turkey.

The coast guard released a statement and video Thursday about the interception a day earlier.

European Union leaders are preparing to push ahead with contested plans to send tens of thousands of migrants back to Turkey, which has been the main departure point for asylum seekers heading for Europe.

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10:45 a.m.

Greece is insisting that European Union leaders meeting in Brussels must provide for sanctions against member states that unilaterally decide to shut out refugees.

Deputy Defense Minister Dimitris Vitsas, who heads a task force on migration, said Thursday that Europe should not contain "fortress-states."

Athens has repeatedly criticized fellow EU member Austria for capping the number of migrants it lets in, which had a domino effect through the Balkans and left nearly 46,000 migrants stuck in Greece.

That figure includes 14,000 living in a waterlogged tent city set up round the closed Idomeni border crossing with non EU member Macedonia.

Greek authorities are trying to persuade people in Idomeni to move to organized shelters elsewhere, but have ruled out using violence to evacuate the camp.

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10:40 a.m.

The top European Union official trying to broker a contested agreement with Turkey to send back tens of thousands warns that the talks will not be easy.

EU Council President Donald Tusk said Thursday that "I am cautiously optimistic, but frankly more cautious than optimistic."

He says any deal at a two-day meeting of EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday must satisfy all the bloc's 28 member countries.

Cyprus is threating to veto a deal because Turkey does not recognize it. Spain rejects any blanket return of migrants. Hungary refuses to resettle refugees from Turkey, saying that would only attract more people to Europe.

The summit is due open in Brussels at 1500 GMT.

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European Union leaders will push ahead Thursday with contested plans to send tens of thousands of migrants back to Turkey amid deep divisions over how to manage Europe's biggest refugee emergency in decades.

With European unity fraying in the face of more than 1 million migrant arrivals over the last year, Turkey — the source of most refugees heading to Greece — is seen as the key partner to contain the influx.

The U.N. refugee agency has reservations about asylum standards in Turkey and rights groups are concerned over Ankara's crackdown on the media and its bloody conflict with Kurdish rebels.

The EU, however, feels it has no better option.

"How are you going to help Greece without having an agreement with Turkey to handle the issue? Do you really want to condemn Greece to become a refugee camp for the rest of Europe?" EU Commission vice president Frans Timmermans said, on the eve of the two-day summit in Brussels.