x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Syrians flee to Turkey as troops mass in the north

UN envoy Kofi Annan is trying to broker a deal to end the clampdown by Syrian security forces on protesters

ISTANBUL // A rising number of Syrians have crossed into Turkey as refugees, a Turkish diplomat said yesterday, as Syrian troops began massing in the north-west province of Idlib, near the Turkish border.

At least 13 people were killed in an assault on Ain Larose village in Idlib, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Other activists said at least 31 people were killed across Syria yesterday.

Mr Rahman said that several people were arrested, among them women.

The attack on Ain Larose came after days of troop reinforcements backed by tanks in the province, a rebel stronghold, in the regime's campaign to root out fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), activists and the Observatory said.

The military build-up has prompted fears, on the eve of a first visit to Syria by the new international envoy Kofi Annan, of a major assault like the one that devastated the Homs neighbourhood of Baba Amr.

Mr Annan is attempting to broker a deal to end the violent clampdown by Syrian security forces on protesters that started a year ago and has killed more than 8,400 people.

On the Turkish side of the border, about 12,000 Syrians were housed in Turkish camps in the province of Hatay as of yesterday, a Turkish diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to comment publicly on the issue.

"The number has been rising gradually for a few weeks," he said, adding that the increase came after the number of refugees had been stable at about 7,000 for some time.

The diplomat confirmed that two generals of the Syrian military had defected and fled to Turkey in recent days, bringing the total number of defected generals to four.

He said one general had arrived in Turkey late last year, and another one had arrived in January. Turkey's state television reported that a Syrian colonel had also defected to Turkey.

The high-rank defections are significant as most military defectors from Syria so far have been low-level conscripts. The new arrivals could boost the morale of the FSA, which has suffered setbacks recently in its fight against the regime.

Mr Annan, a former United Nations secretary general who is expected to visit Damascus as the UN and Arab League special envoy today, warned on Thursday against a further militarisation of the Syrian conflict.

But the leader of Syria's main opposition group yesterday rejected Mr Annan's calls for talks with the government of President Bashar Al Assad, saying that they were pointless and unrealistic as the regime massacres its own people.

Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group, told the Associated Press that Mr Annan's comments had been "disappointing". Mr Ghalioun expressed concern that Mr Annan's mission could "waste a month or two of pointless mediation efforts".

Reports of the new Syrian troop movements came after a visit by Valeria Amos, the UN humanitarian chief, to the country.

Speaking in Ankara yesterday after talks with Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, Ms Amos said the Syrian government had agreed to join UN agencies in an assessment of the situation in the country, where thousands of people have been cut off from food, water and electricity because of the fighting.

"We have agreed on a joint preliminary humanitarian assessment mission to areas where people urgently need assistance," Ms Amos said. She said she had asked the Syrian government for unhindered aid access to the worst-hit areas, but the government had requested more time. Before her meeting with Mr Davutoglu, Ms Amos toured the Turkish refugee camps for Syrians yesterday.

According to Turkish media, Ms Amos told Mr Davutoglu that the devastation she had seen in Homs was "staggering". Mr Annan is expected to visit Turkey after his talks in Damascus, the Turkish diplomat said. Besides meeting Turkish officials, Mr Annan is scheduled to visit Turkey's refugee camps.

To prepare for a further influx of refugees from Syria, Turkish authorities have begun building a camp of prefabricated houses in Kilis, 150 kilometres east of Hatay, the diplomat said. "Our open door policy will continue," he said. "We are prepared to receive as many people as we can."

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, called for the creation of humanitarian corridors inside Syria in a speech on Tuesday.

The issue is also expected to be taken up during a second meeting of the so-called Friends of Syria, a group of countries trying to increase international pressure on the regime, in Istanbul this month.

So far, Turkey has rejected any idea of foreign intervention in Syria, but, in their latest statements, Turkish officials left a door open for a possible regional initiative. Abdullah Gul, the president, said during a visit to Tunisia on March 8 that Turkey was opposed to any intervention from "outside the region".

The Turkish diplomat said that Turkey was looking at different possibilities. "Many options are open," he said. "Our national security come first," he added. "The refugee situation could become problematic."



* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse