Syrians pour into Turkey as tanks enter border zone
By Burak Akinci and Antoine Demaison (AFP)
GUVECCI, Turkey — Syrian troops backed by tanks entered a border zone Thursday, sending hundreds of people fleeing into Turkey, as protests against President Bashar al-Assad's rule hit the 100 day mark.
Some 600 displaced people broke through the barbed wire marking the frontier and advanced into Turkish territory on a road used by Turkish border guards, a few kilometres (miles) from the Turkish village of Guvecci.
They were flanked by Turkish paramilitary police vehicles and minibuses, called apparently to ferry the refugees to tent cities the Turkish Red Crescent has erected in the border province of Hatay. Another several hundred people were seen further down the same road, walking towards the Turkish security forces vehicles.
Earlier Thursday, Syrian troops backed by tanks stormed a border village where many of the displaced had massed, an activist at the scene told AFP.
The security forces surged into the northern village of Khirbet al-Joz in the early morning, the activist told AFP in Nicosia by telephone, as witnesses on the Turkish side said they saw soldiers and tanks approach the frontier.
A Guvecci resident said he saw soldiers crossing a hill on the Syrian side less than a kilometre (half a mile) from the border at around 6:00 am (0300 GMT).
A Turkish flag raised a few days earlier by Syrian refugees in gratitude for Ankara's hospitality was replaced by a Syrian one, an AFP journalist witnessed.
Turkish police were seen laying sandbags and mounting precision binoculars on tripods on the outskirts of Guvecci.
Speaking to AFP by telephone, a Turkish smuggler in contact with relatives on the Syrian side said the tanks were on stand-by at Khirbet al-Joz, but units of plainclothes police were descending on farms outside the village, some 500 metres (yards) from the frontier.
"We are experiencing a surge of activity at the border," the head of Turkish Red Crescent Tekin Kucukali said in Guvecci. "There were over 600 entries today," he said, adding that Thursday's influx brought the number of Syrians taking refuge in Turkey to more than 11,000.
Thousands of Syrians fleeing a deadly crackdown on dissent have flocked to the border in recent weeks but many have hesitated to cross to Turkey, gripped by uncertainty over a future on foreign soil and wary of leaving their property behind.
Crammed into a narrow strip along the frontier, they have been living in the open air or in makeshift shelters of branches and plastic sheets, surviving on scarce food and water.
The Turkish authorities have reportedly assured them they can cross over if they felt threatened. The Red Crescent has a theoretical capacity to shelter 250,000 people, Kucukali said on Turkey's Haberturk news channel.
At the weekend, the organisation announced it had begun providing urgent humanitarian aid to those massed on the other side of the border.
More than 1,300 civilians have been killed and some 10,000 people arrested, according to Syrian human rights groups, in the crackdown that has seen troops dispatched to crush pro-democracy protests across Syria that first erupted on March 15.
Activists meanwhile said a call by the Facebook group Syrian Revolution 2011 for a general strike Thursday across Syria to mourn those killed in the crackdown was partially observed in major centres. They said shops and businesses were shuttered in parts of the flashpoint central cities of Homs and Hama, in the Damascus suburbs of Douma and Muadamiyeh and in the southern neighbourhoods of the western town of Banias.
The strike was also partially observed in the northwestern city of Qamishli and in villages in the southern province of Daraa, epicentre of the protests.
The Facebook group also called on Syrians to stage rallies on Friday, the weekly Muslim day of rest and prayer that has become a springboard for demonstrations across the Arab world.
"Bashar is no longer my president and his government no longer represents me," is the theme declared for Friday's rallies.
"The fall of legitimacy," rally says the message on the main page of the Internet protest group. The latest rallying calls come a day after Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem held a press conference in which he said Damascus rejected all foreign interference in the Arab country.
Meanwhile six Syrian human rights groups, in a joint statement released Thursday, denounced "the cycle of violence in Syria, no matter what the source of the violence or its justification."
"We strongly denounce and condemn the arrests of Syria citizens and express our deep concern over their fates," the statement added.
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