Thousands flee to Turkey as clashes on Syria border escalate
Fleeing violence from Syria, hundreds of Syrian refugees are crossing the Turkish-Syrian border to enter Turkey. (Photo: AA)
Some 9,000 refugees have fled to Turkey in the past 24 hours in one of the largest exoduses on a single day since the start of the uprising against Bashar al-Assad 19 months ago. Seven Turkish nationals have also been injured by stray shells from Syria.
Thousands of Syrians fled to Turkey on Thursday night as clashes intensified between opposition forces and the Syrian army along the border.
The UN said some 9,000 refugees had led to Turkey in the past 24 hours, while another 2,000 went to Jordan and Lebanon. Panos Moumtzis, the UN refugee agency's coordinator for the region, said the estimated figures are "really the highest we have had in quite some time," compared with an average 2,000 to 3,000 Syrians fleeing daily. This brings the number of Syrian refugees registered with the agency to more than 408,000.
A Turkish Foreign Ministry official had earlier put the latest influx at 8,000 -- a single-day total that is sure to heighten Ankara's concerns about the flood of refugees, given that the exodus is one of the largest on a single day since the start of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in March last year. Ankara earlier set the figure of 100,000 as a “psychological threshold,” suggesting that it would be difficult to handle a refugee flow beyond that number.
Speaking in Indonesia, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan once again slammed the lack of international action to end the 19-month bloodshed in Syria, criticizing the UN in particular for remaining deadlocked over how to respond to the crisis. "It is very strange. There are currently atrocities being committed in Syria, and these atrocities are being directed by a state leader. While these atrocities are continuing ... there is a United Nations that is remaining silent towards it," he said.
Turkey has long pushed for a foreign-protected safe zone inside Syria, but the proposal has gained little international support. Ankara has become increasingly vocal in its frustration at the UN Security Council over its failure to take action.
"How far will this go? When will the permanent members of the UN Security Council take responsibility? We are obliged to act together to counter this, otherwise we cannot refer to this world body as being democratic," said Erdoğan.
Most of the Syrians crossing into Turkey were escaping clashes between opposition forces and Syrian troops in the town of Ras al-Ain just across the border in Syria, while thousands were also fleeing the fighting in the town of Harem, in Syria's northern Idlib province.
An official from the Prime Ministry's Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD) told Today's Zaman that the number of refugees that have fled to Ceylanpınar, the Turkish border town just a few hundred meters from Ras al-Ain, was more than 5,000. “Three thousand of these refuges went to the homes of their relations living in Akçakale, while the remaining 2,000 are provided accommodation facilities,” said the official.
Syrian opposition sources told Reuters late on Thursday that opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters had captured Ras al-Ain, an Arab and Kurdish town in the northeastern oil-producing province of Hasaka, but continuing clashes have been reported there.
Seven Turkish nationals were injured in Ceylanpınar by stray shells as clashes continued on the Syrian side of the border. Hearing the sound of mortar fire and intense shooting across the border, residents in Ceylanpınar remained on edge, in fear that the fight could spill into Turkey, while authorities kept schools closed for a second day as a precaution. Officials from the Ceylanpınar Municipality also warned residents not to approach the border with Syria.
Turkish officials said 61 Syrians wounded in the fight in Ras al-Ain were carried across the border to Ceylanpınar for treatment.
According to AFAD figures, the 20-month conflict in Syria has brought a total of 158,940 Syrian citizens to Turkey, 112,883 of whom have remained refugees and the remaining 46,057 having returned to Syria.
These refugees are accommodated in a total of 13 tent cities and one container city built by AFAD in seven Turkish provinces along the Syrian border: Hatay, Şanlıurfa, Gaziantep, Osmaniye, Adıyaman, Kilis and Kahramanmaraş. These camps are addressing the refugees' health, security, financial access, communication, social activity and educational needs. Refugees are also given three meals a day.
Meanwhile, Kurds living in Rasulayn region of Syria's al-Hasakah province are also alarmed by clashes between Syrian opposition forces and regime forces.
The Kurdish Council, a coalition of Kurdish parties opposed to Assad, called on the FSA to leave the region, saying the clashes, as well as fear of Syrian army bombardment, had prompted most of the town's 50,000 inhabitants to flee.
"While the Kurdish Council affirms it is part of the revolution to bring down this totalitarian regime, the province of al-Hasakah must remain a safe area for thousands of refugees who had fled to it from other regions," said the statement issued by the Kurdish Council.
Mohammad Ismail, a senior member of the Kurdish Democratic Party, said the opposition forces were able to make gains near the border because Syrian President Assad would think twice before bombarding using warplanes against them in areas so close to Turkey, as opposed to interior regions where devastating air strikes on cities and towns have been blunting rebel advances.
"The rebels' objective seems to be to take outposts that could help them logistically and help an alternative government to Assad to operate from Syria territory," Ismail said, according to Reuters. "They have now arrived in an area that is religiously and ethnically mixed and rich in oil. Creating instability in it is in no one's interest," he added.
Al-Hasakah has seen peaceful protests against Assad, but the Kurdish community has largely stayed away from the armed revolt, which has killed many thousands.
Massoud Akko, a prominent Kurdish human rights campaigner, questioned the military rationale behind the offensive on Ras al-Ain, saying Assad's forces have regrouped on the outskirts and his forces remained entrenched at a base on the road to the city of Hasaka to the south.
"With the regime still controlling the road to Hasaka, Ras al-Ain is almost useless as a supply line. There is no reason the Free Syrian Army should attack a safe area and make it unsafe,” Akko was quoted as saying by Reuters.
Two Syrian generals, army officers defect to Turkey
İstanbul Today's Zaman
At least two Syrian generals are among the many army officers who defected and crossed into Turkey Friday morning amid increasing clashes in northern Syria on the Turkish border.
A total of 71 Syrians, including two generals, 11 colonels, two lieutenant colonels, two majors, four captains and five sergeants, as well as soldiers and family members, crossed into Turkey through the border village of Bükülmez in the Reyhanlı district of Hatay province.
The generals and army officers were taken to Hatay's Apaydın camp, where defected army officers are being sheltered.
Seven generals who recently defected from the Syrian army arrived with their families at the Turkish-Syrian border on Tuesday and were allowed to enter the country at the town of Reyhanlı under tight security measures.
These latest defections bring the total number of Syrian generals in Turkey to 44.