Turkey Deploys Antiaircraft Units Along Syrian Border

By: Sebnem Arsu, Alan Cowell, and Rod Nordland

ISTANBUL, Turkey — As diplomats prepared for a weekend meeting to revive stalled Syria peace efforts, regional tensions swirling around the 16-month-old crisis ticked higher on Thursday as Turkey said it was stationing antiaircraft batteries on the common border following the downing of one of its warplanes.

Turkish military trucks carried missile batteries on Thursday in the center of Hatay. (Ihlas New Agency, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

Word of the border fortification coincided with further suggestions within Syria that insurgents seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad were operating with increasing audacity in an and around the capital, Damascus. The state news agency, SANA, said an explosion rocked the parking lot of the Palace of Justice, a government court building, on Thursday, sending a plume of black smoke into the sky and injuring three people, just a day after a disputed attack on a pro-government satellite television station 14 miles south of the city.

The news agency’s Web site published images of swirling smoke in the parking lot and cars blanketed in white foam sprayed by firefighters.

Earlier, Turkey’s TRT state broadcaster showed convoys of military trucks carrying antiaircraft guns, a multiple rocket launchers and troops toward several border areas near the southern province of Hatay, where thousands of Syrians have taken refuge from the increasingly bloody insurrection against Mr. Assad’s government.

Others were deployed further east near the border settlement of Suruc, joining units close to the frontier post at Mursitpinar, TRT said. Reinforcements were also moved in from the coastal town of Iskenderun.

The deployment came two days after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey had revised its military rules of engagement toward Syria, warning Mr. Assad that “every military element that approaches the Turkish border from Syria in a manner that constitutes a security risk or danger would be considered as a threat and would be treated as a military target.”

The 550-mile common border has become a critical fault line, used by an increasingly sophisticated network of activists in southern Turkey smuggling supplies into Syria, including weapons, communications gear, field hospitals and even salaries for soldiers who defect.

Almost a week ago, a Turkish warplane was shot down in disputed circumstances off the Syrian coast, with the Turkish government saying the plane was over international waters while officials in Damascus said it was rapidly approaching the Syrian coast when it was hit by shore batteries with a range of less than two miles.

On Wednesday, Syria’s information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, was quoted as telling a private Turkish broadcaster that Syrian antiaircraft gunners might have mistaken the Turkish plane for an Israeli one. “Turkish planes and Israel planes look like each other,” he was quoted as saying by the broadcaster, A Haber. Israel and Turkey both use American-designed warplanes.

Apparently unnerved by the bellicose tones of the authorities in Ankara, Mr. Zoubi said Damascus did not want a crisis with Turkey, a NATO member that has won support from the alliance in its dispute with Syria over the shooting down of its warplane.

With diplomacy in a kind of limbo, Kofi Annan, the special Syria representative for the United Nations and the Arab League whose paralyzed peace plan is in danger of collapse, announced in a statement on Wednesday he was convening an “action group” meeting of influential countries in Geneva on Saturday in an effort to revive the plan.

But the announcement came only after Mr. Annan had made concessions over which countries would attend. Conspicuously absent from the list of the nations invited were Iran, the strongest regional ally of President Assad, and Saudi Arabia, a prominent supporter of Mr. Assad’s enemies.

In Syria itself, the violence and bloodletting showed no sign of abating. Few details of the latest explosion in central Damascus were immediately available. SANA referred to the blast as being the work of terrorists, the government’s usual language for its armed opponents. It quoted an unidentified police source as saying explosives had been planted in a car registered in the name of a Damascus resident.

On Wednesday, gunmen stormed a pro-government television station in a suburb near Damascus, killed seven employees and destroyed its studios with explosives, Syrian officials said, calling the assault a brazen example of atrocities committed by the armed opposition.

The attack coincided with a new United Nations report on human rights violations in Syria that mostly castigated the Syrian government.

Rebels disputed the official account of the assault on the television station, Al Ikhbaria, saying the killers were defectors from Syria’s elite Republican Guard, considered the most loyal core of defenders of Mr. Assad’s inner circle. If the rebel version is confirmed, the attack would constitute a significant breach of security for those close to Mr. Assad, who said on Tuesday that Syria was now in “a state of war.”

Al Ikhbaria, which means Syrian Satellite News, is privately owned but strongly supportive of the government. It is in the town of Drousha, about 14 miles south of Damascus.

Col. Malik Kurdi, a spokesman in Turkey for a rebel commander, Riad al-Assad of the Free Syrian Army, said the attack was carried out by a group of Republican Guard members who had decided to defect and had attacked other loyalist guards at the station. There was no way to independently verify the claim from Colonel Kurdi, who was interviewed by telephone from a refugee camp in southern Turkey. The attackers struck against the backdrop of increasingly bold rebel assaults in the Damascus area and an accelerated pace of high-level defections from Mr. Assad’s military. The conflicting accounts of who assaulted the television station reflected the difficulties that outsiders face in determining the true course of events in the Syrian conflict, from which independent reporters and most international relief and monitoring officials are effectively barred. Those difficulties were illustrated Wednesday in findings by a panel from the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, which is investigating rights violations in Syria but has been blocked from conducting the inquiry inside Syria and has relied heavily on testimony from refugees and defectors. The panel said that it was unable to determine conclusively who was responsible for the May 25 massacre of 108 civilians in Houla, a string of villages in western Syria, but that it “considers that forces loyal to the government may have been responsible for many of the deaths.”

While the investigators accused government forces of committing violations on “an alarming scale” in recent months, they also found that both sides had carried out summary executions. And they said the conflict had escalated significantly despite Mr. Annan’s peace entreaties.

“The situation on the ground has dramatically changed in the last three months as the hostilities by antigovernment armed groups each day take on more clearly the contours of an insurrection,” the investigators said. “As a result of the estimated flow of new weapons and ammunitions, both to the government forces and to the antigovernment armed groups, the situation risks becoming more aggravated in the coming months.”

Source: New York Times

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