Syrian battle rages on Turkish border

Tue, Sep 18, 2012, 01:00

Syrian rebels battled government forces near a Turkish border crossing today and bullets flew into the northern neighbour that has backed the 18-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

The revolt, which began as peaceful street protests cracked down on by Dr Assad's military, has escalated into a civil war in which over 27,000 people have died. Daily death tolls now approach 200 and the last month was the bloodiest yet.

In another bid to stem the bloodshed, Iran's foreign minister proposed a new regional monitoring mission ahead of talks with President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus tomorrow, Iranian state media said. Two previous missions have collapsed.

From the Turkish side of the crossing with Tel Abyad, a Reuters witness heard sporadic, heavy machinegun fire and saw an ambulance nearby. A Turkish official said stray bullets hit some houses in the town of Akcakale, wounding at least one person, a woman.

He said the rebels were trying to gain control of Tel Abyad, which was a major crossing for Turkish-Syrian commerce in peacetime, and which rebels were rumoured to have used for weapons smuggling in the past year.

It appeared to be the first attempt by insurgents to assert their grip over a border zone in al-Raqqa province, most of which has remained solidly pro-Assad.

Rebels hold two other crossings on the northern border with Turkey. A third border point would help strengthen their control in the north and put more pressure on the army as they battle for control of Syria's largest city Aleppo not far away.

Residents say only one town near the border has welcomed rebels in al-Raqqa province. The town held an anti-Assad protest today, prompting government shelling, wounding several people, and fighting later erupted.

Parts of Syria's frontiers with Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq have become porous as the conflict spread. More than 200,000 refugees have poured into Turkey and Jordan to escape bombardment by pro-Assad forces in pursuit of rebels.

Shell fire has occasionally crashed over the borders, and the fighting has sometimes come so close that the armies of neighbouring states have gone on high alert.

Syria's second and third cities, Aleppo and Homs, have been shattered by fighting. With the army relying on fighter jets and helicopter gunships and the rebels on makeshift bombs, neighbourhoods in both cities have been levelled.

Damascus, once seen as an impregnable Assad stronghold, has also suffered near daily shelling and clashes on its outskirts.

At least five fighters and four soldiers died in the latest clashes on the capital's southern outskirts, the London-based Syrian Observatory or Human Rights said.

Security forces are trying to stamp out a rebel foothold in Damascus's southern and eastern suburbs.

Heavy army shelling battered rebellious towns in the southern Deraa region, fount of the uprising, and Idlib, in the north near the Turkish border. More than 60 people were killed nationwide before evening on Tuesday, the Observatory said.

Meanwhile, Iraq reopened its border with Syria today to receive refugees escaping violence, but refused entry to young men for security reasons.

"They (the central government) fear that some of those young men could be members of al Qaeda or the Free Syrian Army," a local government official in Iraq's Anbar province said.

Al Qaim was closed at the end of August when Syrian forces backed by jets fought rebels for control of an airfield and military base near the Syrian border town of Albu Kamal, within metres of the crossing and on a major supply route from Iraq.

"The prime minister gave orders to receive 100 refugees daily and the priority is for women, children, elderly, wounded and sick people, but excluded young men," al Qaim's mayor Farhan Ftaikhan told Reuters by phone.

Mr Ftaikhan said Iraqi authorities had set up refugee camp facilities with a capacity for five hundred families.

Al Qaim is already suffering spillover from the fighting in Syria and Syrian jets fly over Iraqi airspace almost daily to make bombing runs on rebel positions just inside Iraq.

Iraq's government is struggling to overcome its own insurgency and legacy of sectarian violence. Baghdad says it has evidence Sunni Islamist fighters are crossing the porous border to fight against Dr Assad.

"This is an unjust decision towards Syrian families. Some Syrian families reject leaving their young sons behind," the Anbar province official said, declining to be named.

Most people in Albu Kamal have family in al Qaim and Anbar's government has opposed the border closure from the start.

Reuters

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