Turkish artillery opens fire on Syria in escalation of border tensions

 

McClatchy Newspapers

Turkey announced Wednesday that it had fired artillery at Syrian military positions in retaliation for mortar rounds from inside Syria that killed five civilians in a house just inside the Turkish border.

It was the first known exchange of fire between Turkey and Syria since a Turkish-backed uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad began nearly 20 months ago. It was the most serious incident between the two countries since June, when Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance aircraft that had violated Syrian airspace.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Syrian mortar fire landed in Akcakale, a checkpoint in southeastern Turkey that straddles the border with Syria, at 4:30 p.m. local time. Turkish artillery immediately responded, Erdogan said, under standing orders that were rewritten after the June shoot-down.

It was not immediately clear where the Syrian units were that Turkey targeted or what weapons Turkey used to respond. The dead in Akcakale were a mother and her four children, the town’s mayor told Turkish news outlets. Nine other people were wounded.

In a statement, NATO, to which Turkey belongs, “strongly condemned” the Syrian mortar attack and pledged to stand by Turkey. The alliance “demands the immediate cessation of such aggressive acts against an ally and urges the Syrian regime to put an end to the flagrant violations of international law.” But it stopped well short of issuing a threat or saying what steps would follow another incident.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States was “outraged that the Syrians have been shooting across the border.” She said the situation in Syria was “very, very dangerous” and called for a cease-fire, an end to the Syrian government “assaulting their own people” and the beginning of a process of political transition.

Syria’s information minister, Omran Zoabi, said Syria was investigating where the mortar rounds that struck Turkey had originated and offered condolences, saying Syria regretted the loss of life. He also urged Turkey and other countries to stop armed rebels from entering Syria.

Tensions have been high along the Syrian-Turkish border for months, as rebels battling to topple the Assad government have seized a series of border crossings, including, most recently, Akcakale. Turkish news media reported that there has been fighting in the border area for the past three weeks, but it was not clear whether there was combat on Wednesday.

On Friday, after mortars damaged 20 properties and injured three civilians in Akcakale, Turkey formally complained to Syria, and the country’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davitoglu, publicly warned that Turkey would respond if there were another incident.

Erdogan’s announcement of the retaliatory strike came six hours after three mortar rounds landed in Akcakale.

“This abhorrent attack was responded to by our armed forces in the border region immediately,” Erdogan said in a statement. “Syrian positions, detected by radar, were fired upon with artillery.”

Erdogan’s statement said Turkey’s response was in line with the military’s rules of engagement, a set of standing orders on the time and circumstances for using lethal weapons, revised after the June shoot-down.

He said that under its own rules of engagement and international law, Turkey “will never leave such provocations against our national security by the Syrian regime unanswered.”

At Turkey’s request, NATO representatives held an emergency session to discuss the incident. Erdogan said Foreign Minister Davitoglu also contacted the members of the U.N. Security Council and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Davitoglu said he also had contacted U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and special U.N. Syria negotiator Lakhdar Brahimi.

Ban urged Syria to respect the territorial integrity of its neighbors and to stop shooting at its own people.

“The secretary-general has repeatedly warned that the ongoing militarization of the conflict in Syria is leading to tragic results for the Syrian people," he said in a statement.

“Today’s incidents, where firing from Syria struck a Turkish town, again demonstrated how Syria’s conflict is threatening not only the security of the Syrian people but increasingly causing harm to its neighbors," it said.

Turkey has openly sided with the rebels, who Syria says routinely take shelter inside Turkey. But Turkey denies accusations that it has given any direct military help to the armed groups.

An estimated 90,000 Syrians have taken refuge inside Turkey as fighting has raged. The number of Syrian refugees has surged since rebels launched an offensive in July to seize Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, which lies about 50 miles from Akcakale.

Syrian artillery fire, sometimes from a distance, has crossed the border before. In the area around the Syrian-Turkish border crossing near the Syrian city of Kasab, the woods on both sides of the mountainous border are burned from Syrian shelling.

Meanwhile, SANA, Syria’s state news agency, reported that at least 34 people were killed and 122 injured in a series of suicide car bombings in Aleppo on Wednesday that the government blamed on rebel forces.

The news agency said two car bombs were detonated in the city’s Saadallah al-Jabri Square shortly before 8 a.m., stripping buildings of their facades and leaving deep craters in the streets. Another car, this one loaded with 1,100 pounds of explosives, exploded 25 minutes later outside the provincial capital building. At the same time, two mortar rounds fell near Aleppo’s city hall, SANA reported.

The final blast came at 10:35 a.m., the news agency reported, as security officers were attempting to disarm a car bomb carrying more than a ton of explosives. The explosion, which SANA said had been triggered by remote control, ripped through the Aleppo Chamber of Commerce and the Central Bank.

Special correspondent David Enders contributed from Beirut. Jonathan S. Landay contributed from Washington

Email: rgutman@mcclatchydc.com

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