Turkey denies it plans 'buffer zone’ on Syrian border

As Latakia death toll rises to 34, PLO official denounces Assad’s "crime against humanity."

August 17, 2011 01:38
4 minute read.
Activists rally against Syria violence in Beirut

Syria protest Lebanon 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Syrian tanks fired on poor Sunni districts in the port city of Latakia on Tuesday, the fourth day of an assault that has killed dozens and forced thousands of Palestinian refugees to flee, activists said.

A senior Palestinian official described the military offensive in the city as “a crime against humanity,” adding to Arab condemnation of President Bashar Assad’s crackdown on popular demonstrations calling for his overthrow.

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Meanwhile, the United Nations Human Rights Council is set to hold an emergency session next week to denounce the military assault, diplomats said on Tuesday, and Turkish officials denied a report by a local broadcaster that Ankara was planning a buffer zone along its border with Syria to prevent an influx of refugees.

CNN Turk carried the report on-screen and online but later removed the item from its website. It gave no source and did not say what form a buffer zone would take. The name implied some encroachment by Turkish forces beyond the border into Syria.

The Syrian Revolution Coordinating Union, an activist group, said six people were killed in Latakia on Monday, bringing the reported civilian death toll there to 34. A senior Palestinian official condemned the violence, which the UN said had forced between 5,000 and 10,000 Palestinians to flee the al- Raml refugee camp in Latakia.

“The shelling is taking place using gunships and tanks on houses built from tin, on people who have no place to run to or even a shelter to hide in,” Yasser Abed Rabbo, the West Bank-based PLO secretary general, told Reuters. “This is a crime against humanity.”

The UN agency that cares for Palestinian refugees said on Monday that four had been killed and 17 wounded.

“Our fear is that, without access, the figures are higher but we simply don’t know,” UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said.

Residents of Latakia say security forces have targeted areas where demonstrators have been protesting against 41 years of Assad family rule.

In Deir al-Zor, residents said the army pulled out anti-aircraft guns from the city, but armored personnel carriers remained at main junctions and troops, accompanied by military intelligence, stormed houses looking for wanted dissidents.

State news agency SANA said on Tuesday that Syrian forces had begun pulling out after “ridding the city of armed groups.”

Rights groups say at least 1,700 civilians have been killed by security forces since protests erupted in March. Syrian authorities blame others for the violence, saying anti-government forces have killed 500 soldiers and police.

The UNHRC meeting reflects a growing diplomatic consensus that swift action needs to be taken to prevent further bloodshed in Assad’s Syria.

“The situation is serious,” a Western diplomat said. “A special session will allow us to put pressure on Syria on human rights issues and send them a clear message.”

European countries, the US and Kuwait are among 18 members to have endorsed holding the session on Monday, they said. A formal request, which requires the backing of at least 16 members or one-third of the forum’s membership, will be submitted on Wednesday.

The US and EU are lobbying the three other Arab members of the Council, Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to take a strong stand, according to Western and Arab diplomats.

The Geneva forum, in a special session requested by the US on April 29, condemned Syria for using deadly force against peaceful protesters and launched an investigation into killings and other alleged crimes.

UN rights investigators, who were not allowed into Syria, have drawn up a report based on interviews with victims and witnesses of the violence. It is due to be issued on Thursday, coinciding with a debate in the UN Security Council.

Wounded and sick people in the most affected Syrian towns have shrinking access to health care and hospitals, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Tuesday, citing “direct allegations” received by the independent aid agency.

ICRC officials are trying to deliver more assistance to towns hit by the violence but have not yet been allowed to visit any people detained in connection with the unrest, he said.

Turkey on Tuesday flatly denied reports that it planned to build a buffer zone on its border with Syria.

“We do not want to create... a buffer zone,” state-run Anatolian news agency quoted Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz as saying. Officials from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office and from the Foreign Ministry also denied the CNN report.

It came a day after Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Assad his military operations against civilians must end immediately and unconditionally.

In a news conference on Monday evening, Davutoglu issued a warning to the Syrian president that this was Ankara’s “final word.”

Turkish leaders, who once backed Assad, are sounding increasingly frustrated at Damascus.

Ankara was caught off guard when 500,000 people, mostly Kurds, flooded across its border from Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. For years afterward, small contingents of Turkish troops policed what was an effective buffer zone in the north of Iraq.

Relations between Syria and Turkey, its imperial ruler until World War I, have often been tense. In the 1990s, when Turkish forces were battling Kurdish rebels operating from bases inside Syria, the two countries almost went to war.

Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East

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