Turkey says 1,000 Syrians, including defecting general, fled in last 24 hrs

Thousands of Syrians escaping the continuing human rights violations in their country are being hosted in temporary tent cities in the Turkish province of Hatay on the Syrian border. (Photo: Cihan)

March 15, 2012, Thursday/ 10:59:00

Some 1,000 Syrians, including a general that defected from the Syrian army, have crossed into Turkey in the last 24 hours and more are expected, a Turkish official said on Thursday.

Selçuk Ünal, the spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, said the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey was 13,700 as of Wednesday. “As of this morning, 14,700 Syrians are in our country. These figures show how serious the situation is,” he said at a news briefing. “This number is expected to increase. We are preparing ourselves for every possibility.”

With the latest arrival, the number of defecting generals in Turkey has gone up to seven, Ünal said. He did not share the names of the generals.

A majority of the refugees, 14,200 people, are being sheltered in camps in Hatay province. The remaining 500 were transferred to a temporary shelter in the Islahiye district of Gaziantep province, Ünal added.

The latest arrivals represent a sharp increase in the number of Syrians fleeing fighting as clashes continue in the nearby Syrian town of Idlib. Turkey, though opposed to military intervention in Syria, has signaled that a tide of refugees is one of the factors that could trigger efforts to establish a “safe zone” inside Syria.

Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay said on Thursday that Turkey may consider establishing a buffer zone if it is deemed necessary. Atalay said Turkey would not act unilaterally, emphasizing that it wants to coordinate action with the international community and particularly the Arab League. "Measures including establishment of a buffer zone could be considered in due course," Atalay told private NTV television.

Opposition activists said the military has killed dozens of people in Idlib, while opposition forces have also killed government troops. Turkish officials previously estimated there were some 200-300 Syrians crossing daily into Turkey in the past week, a notable increase in recent weeks.

Turkey is to open a new refugee camp near the southern town of Kilis next month to host a further 10,000 Syrians, and work has begun on another camp near the eastern end of the border at Ceylanpınar for 20,000 people, a Turkish official told Reuters. That would bring the total capacity for Syrian refugees to some 45,000, but the official declined to say how many Turkey was expecting.

Turkey also hosts the opposition Free Syrian Army and offers a venue for meetings of the Syrian National Council (SNC). Asked whether the government could provide arms to the Syrian opposition, Ünal said military issues were not discussed in talks with representatives of the Syrian opposition.

Ünal also called on the Syrian opposition, rocked by resignations of senior officials amid financial and leadership woes, to stay united. “Our main message to them is to maintain unity and include representatives of as many segments of the Syrian society as possible,” he said.

Missing journalists

Ünal added that Turkish authorities have contacted their Syrian counterparts in order to determine the whereabouts of two Turkish journalists reported to be missing in Syria for five days, but there has been no information officially confirmed as to where they are and if they are safe.

Adem Özköse, a reporter from the İstanbul-based Gerçek Hayat (Real Life) magazine and Milat daily, arrived with Hamit Coşkun, a cameraman, in Syria on March 5. They were last contacted on March 10, Ünal said. The two journalists reportedly went missing in Idlib.

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