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NATO commander says Russia, Syria using migrant crisis as weapon
Washington (AFP) March 1, 2016

No go-ahead from Turkey on NATO mission in Aegean: diplomats
Brussels (AFP) March 1, 2016 - NATO vessels deployed in the Aegean Sea to help stop the flow of migrants into Europe have not yet started operating in Turkish waters and are waiting for the go-ahead from alliance member Ankara, diplomats told AFP Tuesday.

Despite requests by the NATO operation's German command, "the Turks refused" this weekend to allow the vessels to enter into Turkish waters, a diplomatic source told AFP.

Another diplomat confirmed the report.

The unprecedented mission, which seeks to tackle migrant smugglers, was launched earlier this month and aims to help the European Union cope with its worst migration crisis since World War II.

The plan is for the NATO force to conduct reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance to provide information to Greece, Turkey and the EU's border agency Frontex so that they -- not the alliance -- can deal with the traffickers.

Longstanding disputes between Athens and Ankara over Aegean airspace and territorial waters have however held up agreement on the operational details.

Turkish authorities have now asked Rear Admiral Jorg Klein, the German commander of the NATO operation, "to go to Ankara to determine the area where (NATO) might deploy", the diplomatic source said.

"That is now being discussed between the Germans and the Turks," the source added.

Turkey meanwhile "is showing little to no interest" in taking back migrants picked up by the NATO vessels at sea as they attempt to make the perilous crossing to Greece, the source said.

Plans for the mission were first laid out in a meeting between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara on February 8.

Three days later, defence ministers from NATO's member states gave their go-ahead to start preparing the operation, and to the immediate deployment of three vessels in the Aegean.

More than a million migrants fleeing war in Syria and upheaval across the Middle East, Asia and Africa landed in the European Union last year, the bulk of them making the perilous journey across the Aegean from Turkey to Greece.

Top NATO General Philip Breedlove warned US lawmakers Tuesday that Russia is helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turn the refugee crisis into a "weapon" against the West.

The supreme allied commander in Europe for the 28-member military alliance said the massive flow of migrants from war-torn Syria has had a destabilizing effect on European countries where they found refuge, and that worked to Moscow's advantage.

"Together, Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponizing migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve," Breedlove told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Speaking of Russia's six-month air campaign in support of Assad, and the Syrian leader's use of barrel bombs in civilian areas, Breedlove said Moscow and Damascus are deliberately fueling the mass displacement of Syrians.

Breedlove, who also heads the US military's European Command, suggested this creates a distraction for Western powers as they grapple with the crisis and are forced to take their eye off its root cause.

"These indiscriminate weapons used by both Bashar al-Assad, and the non-precision use of weapons by the Russian forces, I can't find any other reason for them other than to cause refugees to be on the move and make them someone else's problem," Breedlove said.

Further complicating the refugee crisis, he added, is that increasing numbers of foreigners who have fought in Syria are heading home again, bringing battlefield skills and sometimes extremist ideologies.

"What we have seen growing in the past months and year is that in that flow of refugees we see criminality, terrorism and foreign fighters," he said.

NATO last month launched an unprecedented naval mission in the Aegean Sea to tackle people smugglers taking refugees and migrants from Turkey to Greece.

Germany, Greece and Turkey had called for help dealing with Europe's biggest migrant crisis since World War II.

- European reassurance -

Breedlove was in Washington partly to drum up support for a proposed sharp increase in money available to US forces in Europe.

The coming year's budget includes $3.4 billion -- quadruple last year's amount -- for the so-called European Reassurance Initiative.

The four-star general also accused Russia of posing a growing threat to the United States itself.

"Russia has chosen to be an adversary and poses a long-term existential threat to the United States and to our European allies and partners," Breedlove said.

"Russia is eager to exert unquestioned influence over its neighboring states in its buffer zone... so has used military force to violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, Georgia and others, like Moldova."

He said in the last week, the US ambassador in Ukraine had gotten reports of 450 attacks along the frontlines in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian rebels oppose Kiev's pro-Western leadership.

"The report from the ambassador is there are several disturbing trends in those attacks and that is that some of them are now happening in places that were heretofore quiet," Breedlove said.

More than 9,000 people have died during the Ukrainian government's 22-month war against pro-Russian insurgents in the former Soviet state's industrial east.

In a briefing with Pentagon reporters, Breedlove blasted Russia for its "irresponsible" attitude to nuclear weapons.

"I see (Russia) as a real threat and I would just point to the fact that this is a nation that holds thousands of nuclear weapons and they talk all the time about using those nuclear weapons," he said.

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