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Greece blasts 'lies' in EU migrant talks

Greece lashed out on Monday at what it called "lies" by its EU partners following calls for Athens to be suspended from the Schengen passport-free zone if it fails to staunch the flow of migrants into Europe.

[AMSTERDAM] Greece lashed out on Monday at what it called "lies" by its EU partners following calls for Athens to be suspended from the Schengen passport-free zone if it fails to staunch the flow of migrants into Europe.

At a tense meeting of EU interior ministers in Amsterdam, Austria and Germany urged Greece - the European gateway for thousands of migrants each day - to do more to tackle the continent's worst migration crisis since World War II.

But Greece's interior minister for migration Yiannis Mouzalas insisted his country - already buffeted by a debt crisis that almost drove it out of the euro last year - is doing its best in difficult circumstances.

"We are tired to listen that we cannot secure our borders," Mouzalas told reporters in Amsterdam. "We are told that we don't want coastguards, it's a lie - we want more coastguards."

The short sea crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands accounted for most of the one million migrants and refugees who arrived in Europe last year, but Mouzalas said it would be illegal under international law to push them back.

Ewa Moncure, spokeswoman for EU border agency Frontex, also stressed the illegality of turning asylum seekers away from Greek waters.

"Under international law, every person who crosses a European border can claim asylum," she told AFP.

She added that Greece's geography, with its scattered islands and long coasts, made it practically impossible to stop the arrival of flimsy boats carrying people fleeing conflict and misery in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The rest of the EU is, however, turning up the pressure on Athens.

Last week, Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner warned Athens could face "temporary exclusion" from Schengen, the 26-country zone of mainly EU countries that embodies the European dream of free movement.

But in Brussels, European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud insisted on Monday that there was no plan to suspend Greece.

"We have never discussed either a suspension or exclusion. The possibility does not exist," she said.

Austria, Germany and several other Schengen member states have already reintroduced temporary checks at their internal borders, raising fears the passport-free system could collapse.

During a press conference after Monday's talks, Dutch State Secretary for Security and Justice Klaas Dijkhoff suggested the border checks could go beyond the current limit of six months because of the exceptional pressure.

"Member states invited the commission to prepare the legal and practical basis for the continuance of temporary border measures," he said.

Austria and Germany urged Greece to tighten its external EU borders.

"Greece has to reinforce its (border) resources and accept help," Mikl-Leitner told reporters in Amsterdam on Monday, adding that it was a "myth" that the Turkish sea border could not be secured.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere - whose country's decision last year to open its doors to one million asylum seekers sparked anger in transit countries - urged Greece to "do its duty." "We want to save Schengen, we want common European solutions, but the clock is ticking," said de Maiziere, adding that a deal with Turkey to staunch the influx is the key to solving the crisis.

Signed last year, the deal involves Brussels paying Ankara three billion euros (S$4.65 billion) in aid for Syrian refugees and speeding up its EU membership process, in return for Turkey tackling people smugglers and improving conditions for refugees.

The payment has been held up by concerns that Turkey is not complying, but EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said during a visit to Ankara on Monday that she was confident Turkey would get the three billion "in reasonable time".

Brussels is also exploring other ways of stemming the flow of migrants, particularly through the Western Balkans.

The European Commission confirmed on Monday that it had sent a mission to non-EU Macedonia to discuss how it could help staunch the large numbers passing over the border from Greece.

It said commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker had replied to a letter from Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar, who last week called for Macedonia to effectively seal off its border with Greece and staunch the flow through the Balkans.

Mr Dijkhoff said the member states asked the commission to "explore the possibilities" for Frontex to "provide assistance at the border".