Turkey and the European Union struck a deal on Friday to stop the torrent of migrants crossing the Aegean Sea, declaring that those arriving on Greek shores can expect to be returned to Turkey beginning on March 20.

The plan is the EU's latest effort to end an unrestrained surge of migrants and asylum seekers that saw more than 1 million people reach European shores last year. Most crossed by sea from Turkey into Greece, aiming to then move on to wealthy northern countries.

Friday's deal hinges on a provision under which up to 72,000 Syrian asylum seekers will be returned from Greece back to Turkey. The EU argues that the move, which has been condemned by human rights groups, is key to undercutting migrant smuggling networks in the Aegean.

In exchange, the EU has agreed to resettle up to 72,000 Syrian asylum seekers out of Turkey. The new, one-for-one resettlement scheme will come to an end if this threshold is exceeded.

In return for its help, Ankara stands to receive new refugee aid and closer ties to the EU.

"We today realized that Turkey and the EU have the same destiny, the same challenges and the same future," said Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, calling it an "historic day."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the message was that "whoever embarks on this dangerous route not only risks their life, but also has no chance of success." The aim was to end the "inhuman" smuggling of migrants and secure Europe's external borders, she added.

But the Amnesty International advocacy group slammed the deal as a "historic blow" to human rights, arguing that Turkey is not a safe country for refugees or migrants.

"Promises to respect international and European law appear suspiciously like sugar-coating the cyanide pill that refugee protection in Europe has just been forced to swallow," said John Dalhuisen of the group.

The UN Refugee Agency, which has been enlisted to help with the deal, warned that how it is implemented would be "crucial."

"The response must be about addressing the compelling needs of individuals fleeing war and persecution. Refugees need protection, not rejection," the organization said.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the bloc now stood before a "Herculean task" in its aim of carrying out the deal in economically-embattled Greece.

An overall 4,000 officials would be needed there to help process new arrivals, Juncker said, adding that the operation would cost as much as 300 million euros (338 million dollars) over the next six months.

To comply with international law, people arriving from Turkey will retain the right to have their asylum claims heard in Greece before being sent back. The EU has pledged to cover the cost of the return operations.

The bloc has also promised Turkey a quicker disbursement of 3 billion euros (3.4 billion dollars) in already-promised refugee aid, as well as more financial support on top of that, to help it cope with more than 2 million Syrians it has taken in.

The United States called the agreement "an important step" on responding to the refugee crisis and commended Turkey for hosting more than 2.7 million refugees from Syria.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said the US strongly endorsed the action to shut down the illegal smuggling operations, adding that the US "stands ready to increase our support to affected countries and to help other nations neighboring Syria."

Contentious issues at the two-day EU summit in Brussels included Turkish demands for visa-free access to the bloc for its citizens by June - a step that will be granted so long as Ankara meets the required benchmarks in time.

EU leaders also managed to broker a compromise to advance Turkey in its long-standing bid to join the EU - a move initially resisted by Cyprus, which is in the midst of delicate reunification talks with the island's Turkish-backed north.

"Today we have a balanced proposal that takes on board Cypriot concerns," EU President Donald Tusk said following the talks.

The EU pledged to open negotiations on financial and budgetary provisions with Turkey before July. Ankara had initially sought progress on five negotiation chapters - policy areas in which Turkey must align with EU standards - that Cyprus had blocked.

Latest news

Syrian opposition rules out future role for President al-Assad

The Syrian opposition said Friday it would not accept any role for President Bashar al-Assad in the future of the war-torn country, reacting to a recent US shift saying that removing al-Assad is no longer a priority for Washington.

Russian Army integrates breakaway forces of Georgian province

Parts of the small fighting forces of the Georgian breakaway province of South Ossetia have been placed under Russian military control, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Friday.

Czech Republic's Pilsner Urquell beer is now Japanese

Japanese brewing company Asahi completed its takeover of the Czech brewery Pilsner Urquell on Friday, Asahi said in a statement.

Judge approves 25-million-dollar settlement of Trump University case

A US district judge on Friday approved a 25-million-dollar settlement of lawsuits and state fraud allegations against Trump University, the US president's now-defunct business venture.

Former Thai premier Thaksin to junta on reconciliation: 'Cut me out'

Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Friday announced that he is not interested in the junta-led reconciliation process, three days after the junta handed him a half-a-billion-dollar tax bill for his past business deal.

Dalic: We welcome possible deal between Agrokor and banks

The government welcomes the possibility of an agreement being concluded between the Agrokor food company and creditor banks, and the bill on vitally important companies is not a fallback plan but the result of the government's care for the overall economic and financial stability of Croatia, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy Martina Dalic told a press conference in Zagreb on Friday.

Croatia, China sign action plan for cooperation in agriculture

The Croatian and Chinese ministries of agriculture on Friday signed an action plan for cooperation in the field of agriculture for the period 2017-2018, the Croatian ministry said in a statement.

ZSE indices up, Agrokor shares in focus of investor interest

The Zagreb Stock Exchange (ZSE) indices on Friday rose by more than 1.8%, with stocks of the Agrokor food and retail concern being in the focus of investor interest again.

Berlin police defend handling of Berlin market attacker

Berlin police defended themselves on Friday against accusations that they stopped surveillance on Berlin Christmas market attacker despite knowing in June 2016 he was dangerous.

Croatia, creditors tailor emergency measures to save tottering giant

Croatia's tottering retail and food giant Agrokor reached an agreement with its creditors, putting its debts standby and allowing it to continue working during emergency restructuring, the Croatian branch of Austria's Erste Bank said Friday.

Agrokor's creditors say standstill agreement to go into force today

A standstill agreement regarding the Agrokor concern's existing financial obligations to banks will take effect on Friday, additional capital will be injected into the concern in the coming days and the concern will be actively restructured, which includes a change of its management, it was said on Friday after a meeting between Agrokor's suppliers and creditor banks.

Palestinians, UN slam Israel's new settlement plan

Palestinians, Israeli activists and the UN lambasted the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, a day after it gave the go-ahead for the first new West Bank settlement in a quarter of a century.

South Sudan rebels release three abducted foreign oil workers

South Sudanese rebels have released three foreign engineers they abducted in early March in the oil-rich Upper Nile region, Foreign Affairs Ministry official Mawein Makol Arik said on Friday.

Turkish opposition: Imprisoned party chief has gone on hunger strike

The head of Turkey's pro-Kurdish opposition party has launched a hunger strike from prison.

European leagues threaten Champions League schedule clashes

The European Professional Football Leagues (EPFL) on Friday threatened schedule clashes on Champions League matchdays in an ongoing dispute with the governing body UEFA.

Danish court revokes citizenship of IS volunteer

A Danish appellate court on Friday stripped a man of his Danish citizenship for volunteering to fight for the extremist Islamic State in Syria.

Banks and Agrokor agree on key elements of standstill agreement

Member banks of the coordinating committee of financial creditors and representatives of the Agrokor food company have in principle agreed on key elements of a standstill agreement, which is expected to be signed later today, announcing changes in the company's management team, Erste Bank said in a statement on Friday afternoon.

Syrian man on trial in Sweden; mosque attack labelled terrorism

A Syrian man went on trial Friday in the southern Swedish city of Malmo, charged with terrorism and arson after an attack last year on a building used as an assembly hall by Shiite Muslims.