DIKILI, Turkey Turkish authorities detained 1,700 migrants trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos on Friday, in a major operation involving coastguard ships and helicopters, as European leaders clinched an agreement with Ankara aimed at halting illegal migration.
A total of 1,734 migrants and 16 smugglers were detained in the operation, launched at several locations near the town of Dikili on Turkey's Aegean coast, the military said in a statement. The operation involved the coastguard, navy, gendarmerie and was backed by air support, it said.
Authorities were still working to ascertain the nationalities of those arrested, the military said.
Many of those detained at sea, and others in hostels and streets on Turkey's Aegean coast, were being taken to a sports hall in the town of Dikili, a senior local security official told Reuters.
The migrants, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, would be questioned to determine their backgrounds and what action would be taken next, officials said.
"I think there are many people running from war to Europe, and I guess it's a (problem)," said Issam Katib, 27, who fled from Damascus and was among those detained.
He reflected a widely held view among the migrants that if they could reach the Greek islands they would then be free to settle in Europe.
"If Turkey gives us the right to choose the country to live in, it is ok, but I think ... in Greece we have the right to choose," he told Reuters, speaking in English. "We all need (to go) a legal way, maybe not by the sea."
In Brussels, European Union leaders approved a deal with Turkey intended to halt illegal migration to Europe in return for financial and political rewards for Ankara..
The accord aims to close the main route a million people used to cross the Aegean Sea to Greece before marching north to Germany and Sweden in the last year. But deep doubts remain about whether it is legal or workable, with some human rights campaigners saying Europe should not close its borders to people genuinely fleeing for their lives.
Turkey is home to more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees alone, and for many, the attraction of Europe is unlikely to diminish once the agreement takes effect. People traffickers are likely to focus on new routes, officials fear.
"We left Syria and came to Turkey, but life here is expensive and difficult ... We want to go to Europe and for someone to help us a little," said Qasser Shaouk, a migrant in the Basmane district of Izmir, the main city on Turkey's Aegean coast.
(Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Editing by Larry King and Mark Potter)
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Updated Date: Mar 19, 2016 02:31:57 IST