Erdoğan says another Syrian mortar has fallen in Turkey, can’t be accident

Erdoğan says another Syrian mortar has fallen in Turkey, can’t be accident

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Iranian Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi spoke in a joint news conference in Ankara on Thursday. (Photo: AA)

October 04, 2012, Thursday/ 21:10:00

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has lashed out at Syria over the growing number of attacks on Turkey as the violence escalates along the Turkish-Syrian border between Assad forces and opposition fighters, saying these attacks can’t be an accident.

“Another mortar bomb fell in Hatay’s Altınözü district today,” Erdoğan told a joint news conference with Iran’s Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi.

Erdoğan suggested the Syrian shelling was not accidental, saying that such shells had fallen on Turkish territory on seven previous occasions since the civil war began there.

Turkey hit back after what it characterized as "the last straw" when the mortar hit Turkey's Akçakale, killing a mother, her three children and a female relative.

Speaking about Thursday’s parliamentary motion that authorizes military operation against Syria, Erdoğan said Turkey would never want to start a war and parliament had authorized foreign deployment of troops as a deterrent after the fatal Syrian shelling of southeast Turkey.

"We could never be interested in something like starting a war," Erdoğan added.

Three armored personnel carriers were positioned on the southern edge of Akçakale, their guns trained on the Syrian town of Tel Abyad a few miles (kms) across the frontier. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said three Syrian soldiers were killed by Turkish shelling of a military post nearby.

"The Turkish Republic is a state capable of defending its citizens and borders. Nobody should try and test our determination on this subject," he added.

For its part, Syria admitted it was responsible for the shelling that killed five people and formally apologized for the deaths, another top Turkish official said.

Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay said Syria has reassured the UN that "such an incident will not occur again."

The border violence has added a dangerous new dimension to Syria's civil war, dragging Syria's neighbors deeper into a conflict that activists say has already killed 30,000 people since an uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime began in March 2011.

Atalay said Parliament's authorization was not declaration of war on Syria but gives Turkey the right to respond to any future attacks from Syria.

"The bill is not for war," Atalay said. "It has deterrent qualities."

Cross-border tensions escalated Wednesday after a shell fired from inside Syria landed on a home in Akçakale, killing two women and three of their daughters and wounding at least 10 others, according to Turkish media.

The bill Thursday opened the way for unilateral action by Turkey's armed forces inside Syria without the involvement of Turkey's Western or Arab allies. Turkey has used a similar provision to repeatedly attack suspected Kurdish rebel positions in northern Iraq.

Still, Atalay said Turkey's "main priority" was to "act together with the international community."

"That is why we called on NATO and the United Nations to take up the issue," Atalay said.

The NATO military alliance, of which Turkey is a member, met at an emergency session in Brussels and condemned the attack on Turkey. NATO demanded "the immediate cessation of such aggressive acts against an ally" and urged the Syrian regime to "put an end to flagrant violations of international law."

The Turkish response to the shelling was prompt - it fired salvos of artillery rounds deep inside Syria.

Mustafa Güçlü, a witness in Akçakale, said the Turkish military fired five rounds of artillery "after midnight" toward Syria and another round around 5 a.m. on Thursday.

"I have not heard any more shelling since then," he told the Associated Press.

The Syrian mortar shell damaged the door and walls of a house in Akçakale, while shrapnel poked holes and shattered windows of neighboring houses and shops.

Some residents of Akçakale abandoned their homes close to the border and spent the night on the streets.

Turks have grown weary of the burden of involvement in the Syrian conflict, which includes the hosting of 90,000 Syrian refugees in camps along the border.

Yet Turkey is still loath to go it alone in Syria, and is anxious for any intervention to have the legitimacy conferred by a UN resolution or the involvement of a broad group of allies. Turkey is mindful in part of inconclusive ground missions, mostly in the 1990s, against terrorists from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) based in northern Iraq, as well as the bitter lessons of being seen as an occupying power that are associated with the US-led invasion in Iraq.

Reaching deeper into history, Turkey is aware of Mideast sensibilities over Ottoman rule over much of the region.

In a related development, Turkish police fired tear gas to stop a small group of anti-war protesters approaching parliament on Thursday as deputies debated a motion that authorized military action in Syria if the government deems it necessary.  

A Reuters reporter saw 25-30 protesters chanting "We don't want war!" and "The Syrian people are our brothers!" in front of the parliament building in the capital Ankara.

On a visit to Pakistan on Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed his government's concern over the escalation of tensions.

Lavrov, speaking at a press conference in Islamabad, said Syria has assured Russia, an ally, that such an incident as the shelling that killed the Turks will not happen again.

"It is of great concern for us," Lavrov said. "This situation is deteriorating with every coming day."

Germany's foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said NATO members agree on the need for solidarity but also on prudence in reacting to events on the Turkish-Syrian border.

The Turkish retaliatory shelling and steps to authorize possible military intervention against Syria were the latest events to sharply escalate tensions between the two former allies.

In June, Turkey reinforced its border with anti-aircraft missiles and threatened to target any approaching Syrian military elements after Syrian forces brought down a Turkish jet, killing its two pilots. Turkey said the plane was in international airspace, countering Syrian claims that it was in Syrian airspace.