Syrian opposition forces seized control of a border crossing on the frontier with Turkey on Wednesday, pulling down the Syrian flag and briefly allowing people -- some jubilant, some wounded -- to crawl under a barbed-wire barrier between the countries.
Turkish authorities quickly closed the area and police prevented the crowd from trying to storm the border and cross into Syria. Television footage showed Syrian opposition forces taking down the Syrian flag on top of a government building at the Tel Abyad border gate.
The opposition capture of the Tal Abyad border gate came after fierce clashes that erupted late on Tuesday between the opposition and regime forces that resulted in the injury of three Turks in the border town of Akçakale. The authorities told the residents to evacuate the area and closed schools for one day. Agricultural work was also banned in the area.
The violence along the border with Turkey, which is a strong supporter of the opposition forces trying to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, underlines the danger to the region as the Syrian civil war increasingly affects neighboring countries.
The injured include two women and one baby, all of whom were hit by stray bullets and hospitalized in Akçakale. Officials said bullets had smashed windows in several houses along the border during the clashes.
"A heavy hail of bullets is landing here. We are scared. We had to stay in another house last night. We don't know what to do," one man in his 40s told CNN Türk television only meters from the fence separating both countries. "Teachers, everyone, have left the school next to us, they have fled the area," he said.
Some 300 Syrians had fled over to Turkey around Akçakale to escape the fighting, a Turkish official told Reuters. Twenty-five opposition fighters wounded during the clashes were also receiving medical treatment in Turkey.
Syrian opposition forces have captured other border crossings into Turkey, as well as one into Iraq, but Wednesday's seizure of the Tal Abyad post is believed to be the first time they have overrun a frontier post in the northern province of Raqqa, most of which has remained solidly pro-Assad.
The opposition holds two other crossings on the northern border with Turkey. A third border point would strengthen their control in the north and put more pressure on Assad's army as the two sides battle for control of Syria's largest city, Aleppo, not far away.
News reports said earlier on Wednesday that the rebels had surrounded the customs building and engaged in an intense fire fight with Syrian sharpshooters positioned in the building. Several people were wounded in the battles and taken to Turkey for treatment, the report said. Civilians escaping the violence reported that several people were killed in the fighting around Tal Abyad.
Capturing such border crossings allows the opposition to ferry supplies into Syria and carve out an area of control, which is key as the opposition forces try to tip the balance in the civil war.
"I am a free Syrian!" shouted Zisha Bargash, throwing his hands in the air, as he watched the takeover from the Turkish side. "This is the beginning of the end, Assad. Game over."
A crowd of about a dozen people who managed to cross from Turkey into Syria hoisted an opposition flag to replace the national flag, sparking loud cheers and applause.
The 18-month conflict between the regime of President Assad and his opponents began with peaceful protests that were attacked by government security forces, and has since evolved into a civil war. Activists say at least 23,000 people have died, many of them civilians who fell victim to the regime onslaught, although rebel factions have also been accused of summary executions and other abuses.
The conflict has sent refugees pouring into neighboring countries. Some 83,000 refugees have found shelter in 12 camps along the Turkish border with Syria.
No official reaction
Ankara has yet to react to the fighting along its frontier, but a similar incident earlier this year prompted a sharp rebuke from the government.
Turkey officially reported to the United Nations an incident in April in which at least five people, including two Turkish officials, were wounded when cross-border gunfire hit a Syrian refugee camp in Kilis further west along the border.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan then floated the idea of invoking NATO's Article 5 over the incident, saying the alliance had a duty to protect its members' borders.
Article 5 of the NATO treaty states an armed attack against one of its members will be considered an attack against all members and allows for the use of armed force. It has been invoked only once, following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Erdoğan spoke to US President Barack Obama late on Tuesday, discussing the crisis in Syria, among other issues, a statement from Erdoğan's office said. The statement made no reference to the border incident.
Once an ally of Assad, Erdoğan is now among his most vocal critics and has called for him to step down. Turkey actively supports the rebellion against his government, giving fighters sanctuary on its soil and allowing opposition members to meet in Turkish cities.