Turkey boosts Syrian border defences


Turkey deployed troops and anti-aircraft rocket launchers to the Syrian border today as rebel forces reportedly attacked Syria's main court in central Damascus.

There was a loud explosion and a column of black smoke rose over Damascus, a government stronghold that until the last few days had seemed largely beyond the reach of rebels.

State television described it as a "terrorist" blast. Dozens of wrecked and burning cars were strewn over a car park used by lawyers and judges. State news agency Sana said three people were wounded by the bomb hidden in one of the cars.

The guerrilla attack, building pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, in Damascus coincided with a Turkish military buildup on its border to the north and a growing sense of urgency in Western- and Arab-backed diplomatic efforts to forge a unity government and end 16 months of bloodshed.

Turkish military convoys moved slowly towards the Syrian frontier, reacting to Syria's shooting down of a Turkish warplane over the Mediterranean last week. A Turkish official said they were reinforcing air defences.

"I can confirm there are troops being deployed along the border in Hatay province. Turkey is taking precautions after its jet was shot down," a Turkish official said. He said he did not know how many troops or vehicles were eing moved but they were being stationed in the Yayladagi, Altinozu and Reyhanli border areas. He said anti-aircraft guns were being stationed along the border.

Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan, speaking after that aircraft downing, ordered his troops to treat any Syrian military element approaching the border as a military target.

Civil Defence members extinguish fires at the site of an explosion outside Syria's highest court in central Damascus today. Photograph: Sana/Reuters

Elsewhere, a senior opposition official said Syrian opposition groups will reject a political transition plan proposed by peace envoy Kofi Annan unless it explicitly requires Assad to step down before a unity government is formed.

Diplomatic sources at the United Nations said Mr Annan's proposal, aimed at ending the 16-month conflict in Syria, does not stipulate Assad's resignation although it does say the unity government could not include figures who jeopardise stability.

"The proposal is still murky to us but I can tell you that if it does not clearly state that Assad must step down, it will be unacceptable to us," said Samir Nashar, an executive member of the international Syrian National Council.

Mr Annan's transition proposal is one of the main topics that Russia, the other four permanent UN Security Council members and key players in the Middle East will discuss at a meeting in Geneva on Saturday, according to United Nations diplomats.

To win UN backing the plan must have the support of Syria's powerful ally Russia, which has so far rebuffed Western attempts to force Assad to cede power as rank interference in the country's sovereignty.