Turkey strikes back after Syrian shelling

Turkey bombarded Syrian army positions afresh in response to what Turkish officials said was a new shell strike on a border town, just hours after UN chief Ban Ki-moon warned of the dangers.


Ban said there was a growing risk that the conflict in Syria, now in its 19th month, could spill over into neighbouring Turkey and Lebanon, and called for an end to foreign arming of either side.

Syrian troops launched a major assault against remaining rebel districts of Homs province in a bid to finally clear the central region of resistance, and kept up its bombardment of rebel-held neighbourhoods of second city Aleppo, just 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the Turkish border.

The Syrian shell struck in the Altinozu district of Turkey’s Hatay province, at the western end of the two countries’ border, a Turkish official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

He said troops had been under orders to respond to all cross-border fire since shelling from the Syrian side killed five Turkish civilians, including a mother and her three children, last Wednesday.

“The Turkish military retaliates immediately after every single Syrian shell,” the official said. “We have anti-aircraft batteries pounding Syrian targets.”

Hatay governor Celalettin Lekesiz said earlier that six shells fired from the Syrian side had struck Turkish soil during the day.

“All of them landed in rural areas,” he said.

The Turkish parliament on Thursday gave the government the green light to use military force against Syria if necessary.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul said that was not a mandate for war but on Monday said he remained in constant contact with military commanders to ensure an appropriate response.

“Whatever is necessary is being done as you already see, and will continue to be done,” Gul said.

The UN Security Council on Thursday strongly condemned cross-border attacks by Syria and called for restraint between the two neighbours.

On Monday, Ban warned: “The escalation of the conflict along the Syrian-Turkish border and the impact of the crisis on Lebanon are extremely dangerous.

“I am deeply concerned by the continued flow of arms to both the Syrian government and opposition forces. I urge again those countries providing arms to stop doing so,” he added.

The Syrian government accuses Turkey and Gulf states Qatar and Saudi Arabia of backing the rebels. The Syrian opposition charges that Damascus is receiving support from its regional ally Iran.

The new cross-border fire came amid a war of words between Damascus and Ankara over a call by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu for President Bashar al-Assad to step down immediately to make way for a transitional government.

Syria accused Davutoglu of having made a “political and diplomatic gaffe” by suggesting that Assad hand the reins of power to Vice President Faruq al-Shara, the leading Sunni Muslim in the minority Alawite-dominated regime.

“We’re not in the days of the Ottoman Empire any more,” Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi said.

“I advise the Turkish government to give up (power) in favour of personalities who are acceptable to the Turkish people,” he fired back.

Inside Syria, at least 65 people were killed on Monday as fighting raged between troops and rebels in Aleppo in the north, in Homs in the centre and in Daraa in the south, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“The army is in the midst of trying to cleanse the last rebel districts of the city of Homs,” a Syrian army commander said, adding that troops were also poised to assault the nearby town of Qusayr.

Qusayr-based activist Hadi al-Abdallah told AFP via the Internet: “The situation here is bad. The shelling is very, very violent.”

The Khaldiyeh and Old City neighbourhoods of Homs have been in rebel hands — and under a total army siege — for more than four months, according to activists and monitoring groups.

Nearby Qusayr has been under siege since late last year.

In Aleppo, the northern metropolis of some 1.7 million people, the army renewed its bombardment of rebel districts in the east and north, the Syrian Observatory said.

One resident of a northern district who gave his name only as Abdullah told AFP that he had moved his wife and five children to a safer area and only returned to his home once every few days to check on it.

“I admit I’m afraid,” he said.

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