Violence in Syria spills over borders
Monday's shooting was believed to be the first inside Turkey, although there has been similar cross-border violence on Syria's Lebanon frontier.
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Seattle Times news services
BEIRUT — Conflict in Syria burst over the borders into neighboring Lebanon and Turkey on Monday, leaving five people wounded in an attack on the Syrian-Turkish border and a Lebanese journalist shot to death.
On the eve of the deadline of a fading U.N.-backed deal for Syrian troops to withdraw from cities and cease hostilities against a widespread uprising, the violence provoked strong responses from Lebanese and Turkish officials and heightened already tense regional relations.
The incidents came less than two weeks after heavy fighting on the Syrian side of the border with Lebanon threatened to spill into the Qaa area of Lebanon.
With the populations in both Lebanon and Turkey deeply divided between those who support the opposition in Syria and those who still hope embattled President Bashar Assad will remain in power, some fear that such incidents could prove a spark in a combustible environment.
"I think we can expect more violence along the borders; I think that's going to be the new normal," said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution in Doha, Qatar. "The more refugees there are trying to escape, the more skirmishes there will be."
Activists have reported heavy casualties in recent days, with 84 civilians killed Monday, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, along with 19 members of the security forces and eight defectors.
Hopes are rapidly disappearing that a six-point peace plan negotiated with Syrian authorities by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan could halt the violence.
From the beginning of the Syrian conflict, one major concern has been its potential to spark violence in neighboring countries, given the array of border-defying tribes, sects and alliances that overlap within the country.
The U.N. estimates some 9,000 people have been killed in Syria since March 2011, when the uprising began with mostly peaceful protests against Assad. A government crackdown led many Syrians to take up weapons, transforming the conflict into an insurgency.
Monday's shooting was believed to be the first inside Turkey, although there have been similar cross-border attacks into Lebanon.
Syria and Turkey share a 566-mile border, and parts of southern Turkey are informal logistics bases for rebels, who collect food and other supplies and smuggle them to comrades across the border in Syria.
In Turkey, violence broke out as a group of dozens of Syrians — some wounded — sought to become the latest of more than 20,000 refugees to flee across the Turkish border, crossing near the Turkish village of Kilis, north of the Syrian city of Aleppo.
About 9 a.m. the group was spotted making its way to the border, said a spokesman from the Turkish foreign ministry, and several Syrian nationals, along with a Turkish policeman and female Turkish translator, approached the border area to help them.
As the two groups met at the border, they were fired upon by unidentified gunmen in Syria, who wounded three refugees, and the policeman and translator on the Turkish side of the border. The group of refugees crossed into Turkey, where two wounded men died immediately, but it could not be determined whether they had been shot as they entered the country, or earlier.
Residents of a nearby refugee camp reached by telephone said bullets had ripped through their prefabricated shelters, shattering windows and spreading panic. "Even the camp isn't safe anymore," said Ahmad, a refugee who used only one name for fear of repercussions in Syria.
A senior Turkish Foreign Ministry official said Syria's ranking diplomat had been given a harsh message about Turkey's "irritation" with the episode.
"It is not sufficient reason for military action by itself," said Cengiz Candar, the dean of Turkish analysts of Arab affairs. "But the likelihood of Turkish military action is not as dim as it was a week ago." The shooting will undoubtedly be used to buttress Turkey's call for a buffer zone inside Syria to protect civilians.
Turkey was once one of the closest allies of Assad's Syrian government. But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan became an early and harsh critic of Syria's crackdown on protesters last year, and Turkey has since taken in thousands of fleeing Syrians — as well as rebel leaders and members of ragtag militias that have gathered under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.
Syria was expected to figure in talks in Beijing between Erdogan and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin.
China, along with Russia, has vetoed international efforts to isolate Syria.
After agreeing to a peace plan negotiated under U.N. auspices, the Syrian government on Sunday announced new conditions for withdrawing its forces from major population centers by Tuesday and carrying out a cease-fire by Thursday. The conditions boiled down to written guarantees from rebel groups and their main backers — Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia — that the opposition would be dismantled first.
Pressure from Russia, which publicly endorsed the truce and is Syria's crucial international patron, was considered critical to the survival of the peace plan, which was negotiated by Kofi Annan, the special envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League. Walid al-Moallem, Syria's foreign minister, was scheduled to meet his Russian counterpart in Moscow on Tuesday.
The Syrian National Council, the main opposition umbrella group, said it was ready to respect a cease-fire.
"The opposition, including the Free Syrian Army, says it will comply if the regime does," said Bassma Kodmani, a member of the Syrian National Council's executive committee, adding that opposition groups within Syria were ready to put a cease-fire into effect Tuesday and not wait until Thursday. She called the government's actions "clearly not a sign of their intention to cooperate in good faith."
In Lebanon, Hussein Khrais, one of two surviving journalists in a crew with Lebanese television channel al-Jadeed, said they were filming in the Wadi Khaled area on the border with Syria when men in civilian clothes began shooting at their car from the Syrian side of the border. Killed was cameraman Ali Shaaban.
Shaaban is at least the ninth journalist killed while covering the conflict in Syria, including award-winning French TV reporter Gilles Jacquier, photographer Remi Ochlik and Britain's Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin. New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid died from an asthma attack in Syria.
Violence has intensified across Syria in the days leading up to the cease-fire deadline. Opposition groups reported scores killed on Monday alone in besieged cities and towns. In Aleppo, which has been less turbulent than much of the country, 10 security officers were shot dead during a demonstration and 11 were wounded, along with several civilians, the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported. It said 25 security officers were buried nationwide Monday.
Compiled from The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Associated Press.