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NATO agrees on guidelines for refugee mission in Aegean Sea

NATO allies have settled on a maritime plan to help tackle crime rings smuggling refugees into Europe. NATO has also said they will return all rescued refugees to Turkey, a move which has been strongly criticized.

Following late night discussions in Brussels,

NATO allies outlined a plan for their ships in the Aegean Sea

and overcame territorial disputes between Greece and Turkey, announced NATO's chief on Thursday.

"We will participate in international efforts to cut the lines of illegal trafficking and illegal migration in the Aegean Sea. Because this crisis affects us all. And we all have to find solution," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement.

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Sea-Watch - Rescuing refugees off Lesbos

NATO ships, which were sent to Aegean Sea in early February,

will work with Turkish and Greek coastguards

as well as the European Union border agency Frontex. The aim is to give Geek and Turkish authorities information about human trafficking and criminal networks which have fuelled the refugee crisis.

Traditionally, relations between Greece and Turkey have been strained, and it was previously unclear where Turkish and Greek ships should be allowed to patrol - and whether these decisions set a precedent for their claims over disputed territorial waters.

"Greek and Turkish forces will not operate in each other's territorial waters and airspace," said Stoltenberg.

Refugees sent back to Turkey

In contrast to the European Union's refugee rescue mission off the Italian coast, NATO announced that refugees who are rescued by allied ships will be returned to Turkey.

"In case of rescue of persons coming via Turkey,

they will be taken back to Turkey,"

Stoltenberg said without mentioning the particulars if refugees are rescued in Greek waters.

Should NATO ships take migrants back to Turkey despite being in European waters, the move effectively seals the aquatic Greek border.

He also added that "NATO's task is not to turn back boats."

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Amnesty report: Global refugee situation 'disastrous'

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu pushed for the NATO mission to

help manage the flow of refugees who are heading for Europe.

Human rights organizations and the German opposition have criticized NATO involvement in the refugee crisis. Left Party MP Annette Groth said the planned NATO "deportations" back to Turkey "break international law."

Germany has provided the main ship for the mission. The 174 meter- (570 foot-) long "Bonn" currently carries around 210 soldiers. Four vessels under German command, including personnel from Canada, Greece and Turkey, were rerouted for the mission last week from another part of the Mediterranean Sea, according to NATO officials.

The NATO mission is set to start on March 7.

More than one million asylum-seekers arrived last year and

Germany anticipates a total of 3.6 million refugees by 2020.

rs/jil (dpa, Reuters)

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