ISTANBUL // Turkey's prime minister has called for the US to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria in response to what he called clear evidence of Damascus using chemical weapons against the rebels.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan told NBC the "red line" of chemical weapons use set by the US government for tougher action in Syria had been crossed "a long time ago".
He said that in talks with US president Barack Obama this week he would present evidence that chemical arms were used by the Syrian government.
The comments by Mr Erdogan, one of the fiercest critics of Syria's president, Bashar Al Assad, will put more pressure on the US to intervene in the two-year conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people.
Turkish airbases would be crucial in enforcing a no fly-zone over Syria, as the countries share a land border of 900km. The Incirlik airbase near Adana in southern Turkey was used by US aircraft to control a no-fly zone over northern Iraq after the Gulf War of 1991.
"It is clear that the regime has used chemical weapons," Mr Erdogan said, according to excerpts of his interview posted on the NBC website yesterday. "They used about 200 missiles, according to our intelligence."
He said Turkey had pictures of the missiles and intelligence reports indicating chemical weapons use. "And there are patients brought to our hospitals who were wounded by these chemical weapons," he said.
Asked whether Turkey would support a no-fly zone over Syria by the US, Mr Erdogan said, "Right from the beginning ... we would say 'yes'", according to NBC.
"We want the United States to assume more responsibility and take further steps," Mr Erdogan told NBC.
The prime minister's office clarified that he had not, however, expressed support for intervention by US ground troops in Syria. The statement was issued following Turkish media reports saying that Mr Erdogan had advocated ground troops. NBC said in an editor's note on its website that "an earlier version of this story included a response from Erdogan to a two-part question about whether he would support a US-enforced no-fly zone and American troops in Syria. The translator only asked Erdogan about the no-fly zone, however".
Mr Erdogan said his country would "do our duty" if the United Nations decided to create such a zone over Syria.
The prime minister seemed frustrated with the lack of progress at the UN, where Syria's ally Russia has prevented tougher action by the world body against Mr Al Assad's government.
"How can you remain silent?" Mr Erdogan asked. "A strong country like the United States, like Russia, they should not remain silent." While civilians were being killed in Syria, "we just sit here and watch", he said.
The Syrian opposition said they hoped Mr Erdogan's demand for action would push the international community to intervene in Syria.
"We have asked for a no-fly zone from the start to save women and children," said Louay Al Moktad, political and media coordinator of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main rebel force fighting the Syrian government. "Hundreds are dying every day."
Halit Hoca, Turkey representative of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), an opposition umbrella group, said yesterday that 16 people injured by chemical weapons in the north-western Syrian region of Idlib had recently been sent to hospitals in Turkey
Blood samples from victims and soil samples from the area where chemical weapons had allegedly been used were being tested by several western nations, including France, Germany and the United Kingdom, he said. Turkey said this week it was also conducting tests on victims.
Mr Hoca said the Assad government had started to use chemical weapons "in small amounts" during the past six months. "They are still being used."
He rejected the statement on Sunday by Carla del Ponte, the top UN rights investigator, that Syrian rebels may have been using the deadly nerve agent sarin.
"I think the international community knows who used those weapons," Mr Hoca said. "We did not use them," he added, referring to the SNC and FSA.
Mr Erdogan agreed. He told NBC he did not believe that those weapons had been used by the Syrian opposition. "There is no way I can believe in this now" he said. "First of all, how are they going to obtain this? And who will give this to them?"
Ahmet Davutoglu, Mr Erdogan's foreign minister, told the Turkish Hurriyet newspaper this week that the Syrian government had begun using ethnic cleansing in parts of the country to carve out areas for the Alawite minority, to which Mr Al Assad belongs.
More than 100 people were killed in massacres targeting Sunni Muslims in the area of Banias, on Syria's Mediterranean coast last week, according to the opposition. Mr Davutoglu said the aim of the massacres was to clear a region for Alawites. He compared the situation to Serbian massacres in Bosnia that triggered western military intervention in the 1990s.
In the NBC interview, Mr Erdogan said he had received reports that Mr Al Assad's wife and children had left Syria, their lives having been "ruined" by the Syrian president's actions in the confrontation with the opposition.
"The thing he should do now is to leave Syria" as well, the Turkish prime minister said. "Sooner or later, the opposition are going to get him."
With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse