Turkey has closed its Cilvegözü border gate with Syria after nine Turkish trucks were burned and several others were looted after Syrian opposition forces seized control of two border gates last week.
Meanwhile, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an armed opposition group composed mainly of defected Syrian soldiers, on Sunday captured a third border gate with Turkey. The FSA captured two other border crossings, Bab al-Hawa and Jarablus, on Thursday.
The decision to close the border gate came after a security meeting, chaired by the governor of the border province of Hatay, Mehmet Celalettin Lekesiz, on Saturday. The meeting was convened after it emerged that nine Turkish trucks had been burned near the Bab al-Hawa border gate. A Turkish driver, identified as Ahmet Yılmaz, has been taken captive. Turkish officials said on Sunday that the driver safely arrived in Turkey, without elaborating.
Of 30 trucks, 19 had been returned to their owners. An estimated further nine were burned out, and the rest were still being held inside Syria, Lekesiz told reporters after the meeting.
The question of who is responsible for the looting, however, is yet to be answered. The governor has blamed “independent groups” involved in smuggling activities for the looting and burning of the Turkish trucks, while truck drivers complained of the FSA, saying its fighters destroyed the Turkish trucks and have done nothing to stop the looting.
“We assess that the incidents of looting and burning were carried out by independent groups that live on smuggling and other [illegal] acts,” the governor said.
Countering the governor's account, French news agency AFP reported on Saturday that FSA fighters were seen handing out the contents of the trucks to local people on Friday at the Bab al-Hawa border post. “All of our trucks were burned. The rebel fighters destroyed our trucks during the clashes,” Ali Cengiz, who exports goods to Saudi Arabia via Syria, was quoted as saying by the agency.
Syrian opposition forces ransacked customs buildings and pulled cargo from the back of stranded trucks, the report also stated.
However, Abdelbasset Seida, leader of Syria's main opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Council (SNC), contradicted the claims of both Turkish officials and the truck drivers, blaming pro-government gangs for the looting instead. Seida, during a visit to Hatay, described the looting as “unacceptable.”
Violence has escalated in areas near the border following Wednesday's attack, which killed three Syrian officials. The opposition forces seized control of the border posts on Turkish and Iraqi frontiers a day after the attack, although news reports say the Syrian troops have been deployed a few kilometers from the border posts on the Turkish frontier as they prepare for an offensive to regain control of the posts.
Khaled Hodja, SNC's Turkey representative, has claimed that FSA has taken the control of some 60 per cent of Syria's territory. “[The FSA] is strengthening every day,” Hodja stated during a press conference in Hatay, near Syrian refugee camps in the province.
Syrian army loses third post on Turkey-Syria border
The Bab al-Salam crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border is the third post that the Syrian army has lost to the opposition forces since Thursday.
A senior Syrian army defector in Turkey, Staff Brigadier Faiz Amr, said Bab al-Salam was taken at 8:45 a.m. and Assad's troops quickly fled. “Seizing the border crossings does not have a strategic importance, but it has a psychological impact because it demoralizes Assad's forces,” he told Reuters by phone.
Defections from the Syrian army continue. Two Syrian brigadier-generals fled to Turkey overnight, part of a group of about 10 people, including colonels and other military officers. The latest defections will bring the number of Syrian generals taking refuge in Turkey to 24.