HACIPASA, (Reuters) – Turkey’s military will respond with greater force if shelling from Syria continues to hit its territory, its chief of staff said on Wednesday, as clashes between the Syrian army and rebels intensified along the border.
Several mortar bombs landed outside the Syrian border town of Azmarin early on Wednesday and heavy machinegun fire could be heard from the Turkish side. Plumes of smoke rose into the sky and cries of “God is greatest” rang out between the bursts of gunfire, a Reuters witness said.
Turkey’s armed forces have bolstered their presence along the 900-km (560-mile) border and have been responding in kind over the past week to gunfire and shelling coming across from northern Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have been battling rebels who control swathes of territory.
“We responded but if it continues we will respond with greater force,” state television TRT quoted Turkey’s Chief of Staff, General Necdet Ozel, as saying.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Tuesday the 28-member military alliance had plans in place to defend Turkey. He gave no further details, but a senior U.S. defense official said NATO would likely react if Turkey made a request for assistance.
It is not clear whether the shells that have hit Turkish territory were aimed to strike there or were due to Syrian troops overshooting as they attacked rebel positions.
SYRIANS FLEE ACROSS RIVER
Scores of Syrian civilians, many of them women with screaming children clinging to their necks, crossed a narrow river marking the border with Turkey as they fled the fighting in Azmarin and surrounding villages.
Residents from the Turkish village of Hacipasa, nestled among olive groves, helped pull them across in small metal boats.
“The firing started getting intense last night. Some people have been killed, some are lying wounded on the road,” said a 55-year old woman, Mune, who fled Azmarin and sat with several adults and about 20 children outside a house in Hacipasa.
“People want to escape but they can’t. Many have settled in a field outside the town and are trying to come,” she said, describing how she had helped ferry the children over another point in the river in a metal bowl used for wheat.
Doctors and volunteers set up makeshift first aid points on both sides of the frontier. A Turkish ambulance and several minibuses and cars waited to take the more seriously wounded to the main city of Antakya or district hospitals.
“Don’t take me across, take me back. I want to return and fight,” said one man being carried on a stretcher, his T-shirt stained with blood.
The sharp rise in casualties in Syria in the past month indicates the growing intensity of the conflict, which developed from peaceful protests against Assad in March 2011 into a full-scale civil war.
An estimated 30,000 people have been killed as main cities such as Aleppo, Homs and the capital Damascus are savagely contested.