x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Border clashes raises fears that Turkey may call Nato into conflict

Turkish deputy prime minister says incidents have been on the rise for two days as Syrian troops and rebel soldiers have again clashed close to the Turkish border.

ISTANBUL // Syrian troops and rebel soldiers have again clashed close to the Turkish border, near where two deaths in a cross-border shooting incident last month prompted Turkish threats to draw Nato into the conflict.

"Fourteen soldiers and several officers deserted from the Syrian army and were attacked by government troops," Omar Shawaf, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, said yesterday.

"There was a small battle, and in the end the soldiers fled into Turkey," he said.

A Turkish diplomat said: "Our border posts heard shooting and signs of fighting on the other side of the border."

Besir Atalay, a Turkish deputy prime minister who visited the area yesterday, denied reports that bullets fired during the incident late on Monday at Oncupinar in the south-eastern province of Kilis landed on the Turkish side of the border. "Yesterday's clash was not a thing that was directed to where we are," he said.

"According to our intelligence, there was a lot of action along the border and inside Syria throughout the night. Unfortunately, incidents have been on the rise for two days. In the past two nights, action and the sound of weapons have been on the rise again.

"It is a country living through continued pressure and cruelty. Many people are dying."

Mr Atalay said security measures to protect half a dozen refugee camps for Syrians in Turkey, two of which are only a few hundred metres from the border, would be increased if necessary but there was no danger now.

His commnents came on the same day that the United Nations peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said Syrian security forces had kept heavy weapons in cities, and both government and opposition had committed violations of a UN-brokered ceasefire.

Mr Ladsous also said UN members had offered only 150 monitors for the 300 force it said it would provide and that Syria has already refused visas for three proposed monitors.

Mr Shawaf of the SNC denied reports that the fighting on Monday started because of an attempt by rebel soldiers to take control of a nearby border gate on the Syrian side. "They have only light weapons," he said. "It would not be easy to take over a border post without more support."

On April 9, Syrian troops opened fire on civilians fleeing towards the camp in Oncupinar, wounding several Syrians, two of whom later died of their injuries. Turkish officials accused the Syrian side of a deliberate attempt to shoot unarmed refugees.

"It was not just one guy shooting. They had a machine gun," one official said.

The Turkish government informed Nato about the shooting, raising the possibility that the defence alliance, of which Turkey has been a member since 1952, would be asked to help.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, said last week that warning was still valid. "If border violations continue in a way that disturbs us, we, as a member of Nato, will take the necessary steps," he said.

Mr Erdogan supports the peace plan of the UN-Arab League negotiator Kofi Annan, but says the regime in Damascus is continuing the violence. The prime minister said the number of UN ceasefire observers in Syria should be greatly increased to up to 3,000.

Mr Atalay also raised doubts about Mr Annan's six-point plan. "Not even Annan and the United Nations themselves are very optimistic," he said yesterday. "Maybe the fate of the Annan plan will make sure that the next plan is more realistic."

On Monday, Turkey's political and military leaders reviewed the situation in Syria. where repression of protesters by the regime of Bashar Al Assad has resulted in more than 9,000 deaths since March last year.

"All dimensions of the situation of Syrian nationals fleeing to our country and the latest developments on our border with Syria were discussed," the National Security Council in Ankara said after the meeting.

It also called for an end to the violence in Syria and for "the start of a democratic transition period according to the legitimate demands of the people".

In fighting yesterday, Syrian forces fired mortar shells at a farming village in the country's north, killing at least seven people.

tseibert@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Associated Press