ANKARA, (Reuters) – About 8,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria have crossed into Turkey in the last 24 hours, a Turkish foreign ministry official said on Friday, following a rebel offensive along the border.
Rebels, who have driven President Bashar al-Assad’s troops from much of northern Syria and taken several crossing points to Turkey, overran another frontier town late on Thursday, a rebel commander and opposition sources said.
The fighting coincided with talks in Qatar aimed at creating a more representative and credible Syrian opposition body.
Ten people were killed in clashes as rebels took Ras al-Ain, an Arab and Kurd town in the northeastern oil-producing province of Hasaka, 600 km (375 miles) from Damascus, the sources said.
“The crossing is important because it opens another line to Turkey, where we can send the wounded and get supplies,” said Khaled al-Walid, a commander in the Raqqa Rebel Division.
The report could not be independently confirmed.
In the last three months, the mainly Sunni Muslim Arab rebels have captured outposts on the 910 km (560 mile) border, steadily moving toward the northeast, home to many of Syria’s one million Kurds. The encroachments have enraged several Kurdish groups which have tried to stay out of the violence.
The Kurdish Council, a coalition of Kurdish parties opposed to Assad, called on the Free Syrian Army to leave Ain al-Arab, saying the clashes, as well as fear of Syrian army bombardment, had prompted most of the town’s 50,000 inhabitants to flee.
“While the Kurdish Council affirms it is part of the revolution to bring down this totalitarian regime, the province of Hasaka must remain a safe area for thousands of refugees who had fled to it from other regions,” the statement said.
“Military elements have to pull out so their presence would not serve as an excuse to shell the town and destroy it.”
Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency, said in Geneva there had been a “large movement” of Syrian refugees into Turkey’s Urfa province, which borders Ras al-Ain, in the past 24 hours, a period coinciding with the rebel offensive.
Turkey already shelters more than 120,000 Syrian refugees.
The Turkish state-run Anatolian news agency reported that 26 Syrian military officers had also arrived in Turkey with their families overnight, in the biggest mass desertion of senior soldiers from Assad’s forces in months.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 12 people were killed by army shelling in the eastern town of al-Qurriya. The authorities denied responsibility.
Rebels and soldiers clashed in Kfar Souseh, a rich neighborhood of Damascus a couple of km (miles) from the presidential palace, activists said, adding that the area was being shelled from military bases in the capital.
On Wednesday, rebels fired mortars at the palace but missed.
An opposition activist in central Damascus said police stations and state buildings had been fortified with sandbags this week to guard against increasingly bold rebel attacks.
“First we saw the most important buildings protected. Now we are seeing police stations protected,” said the activist, who asked not to be named for security reasons.
In July, a bomb attack in a heavily guarded district of Damascus killed four of the president’s top lieutenants and in September a military compound in central Damascus that houses the Defence Ministry was reduced to a smoldering wreck.
Damascus has become steadily more militarized as a result of such attacks and battles raging in pro-opposition suburbs.
The activist said extra guards were posted months ago at security centers, the central bank and government offices. Then metal barriers kept cars and people at a distance from these buildings. In recent weeks, concrete blocks have been installed.
The Syrian Observatory, a British-based group monitoring the conflict, says at least 38,000 people have been killed since the revolt against Assad erupted nearly 20 months ago.
Efforts to end the bloodshed have been dogged by regional and international rifts, as well as by divisions between civilian and armed opposition factions inside and outside Syria.
The main opposition body, the Syrian National Council (SNC), has been heavily criticized by Western and Arab backers of the revolt as ineffective, run by exiles out of touch with events in Syria, and under the sway of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
Senior SNC member Burhan Ghalioun said on Thursday night the conference in Qatar was moving towards consensus. “The atmosphere was positive. We all agree that we don’t want to walk away from this meeting in failure,” he told reporters.