June 10 (Bloomberg) -- Minibuses carrying refugees from the conflict in Syria arrived at a camp in southeast Turkey as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an ally of Syria’s rulers, pledged to keep the border open.
Two vehicles full of women and children, their faces pressed to the windows, entered the camp at a tobacco warehouse in the town of Yayladagi late yesterday. Minutes later, a pair of ambulances sped toward a hospital in the nearest city, Antakya. Reporters were told that entrance to the camp was forbidden by the local governor, and military police also blocked roads leading to the town of Karbeyaz, an informal crossing point for Syrians fleeing the town of Jisr al-Shughour.
Erdogan has expressed support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- the two leaders have vacationed together -- while urging him to enact democratic reforms as protests spread throughout Syria since mid-March. Instead, Assad ordered a crackdown that has left more than 1,100 dead, according to local human rights groups.
Outside another camp in the nearby town of Altinozu today, about 200 refugees, with children in the front ranks, gathered to shout “Down with Assad” and “Long live Erdogan.”
Turkey’s open-door policy for refugees shows it has “started distancing itself from Assad,” said Kemal Kirisci, a professor of international relations at Bogazici University in Istanbul. “Turkey realized in the past few months that the Syrian regime is not different than father Assad’s.”
Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and predecessor as president, suppressed a rebellion centered in the city of Hama in 1982, killing about 10,000 people according to estimates cited by Human Rights Watch.
At least 189 people have been killed in Jisr al-Shughour in the past five days, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Syria’s military has begun operations to restore order in Jisr al-Shughour, the state news agency Sana reported today. The government says 120 members of the security forces were killed there in an ambush by “terrorists.” Assad has blamed the anti- government protests on Islamist militants and foreign saboteurs.
The Syrian president and many military leaders are from the Alawite sect, with ties to Shiite Islam, while the majority of Syrians and Turks, including Erdogan and most leaders of his party, are Sunni.
A tent city run by the Turkish Red Crescent in Yayladagi, located in a finger of land that juts downward into Syria, was built in April and has room for . Since then, 2,500 Syrians have sought refuge in Turkey, more than 1,000 of them in the last few days, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said yesterday.
Border Won’t Close
The Yayladagi camp has capacity for 10,000 people and a third shelter has been set up in the nearby village of Boynuyogun with room for 5,000, Turkey’s state-run Anatolia news agency reported. Turkey is preparing to accommodate as many as 1 million Syrians, the Istanbul-based Sabah newspaper reported yesterday.
Journalists aren’t allowed to enter the camps because the refugees said they didn’t want to be filmed, Selcuk Unal, a spokesman for Turkey’s Foreign Ministry, said by phone from Ankara today. While Turkey doesn’t want an increase in the number of refugees, there has been no discussion of closing the border, he said.
In an interview with Turkey’s Kral TV yesterday, Erdogan said that he was “saddened” by the violence in Syria.
‘Our Syrian Brothers’
“We will keep our doors open to all our Syrian brothers taking refuge in our country,” he said. “When deaths are getting heavy and our brothers are seeking this kind of refuge, it would be impossible for us to close our doors.”
Erdogan has said that Turkey has a “special relationship” with Syria and views events in that country “almost as domestic affairs.” The two countries in recent years have lifted restrictions on border crossings and trade.
On the road to Antakya, one of the Turkish ambulances blew a tire and pulled over, and two Syrian men got out to smoke cigarettes and wait for help. One of them was hopping, unable to walk on his swollen left foot.
A medic from the ambulance, who declined to give her name because authorities have forbidden press contact, said increasing numbers of women and children have come from Syria in recent days. Many of the men arrived seriously injured, most with gunshot wounds to their legs and lower bodies, and at least five were dead on arrival, she said. Their bodies were sent back to Syria, she said.
--With assistance from Emre Peker in Ankara and Caroline Alexander in London. Editors: Ben Holland, Karl Maier.
To contact the reporters on this story: Benjamin Harvey in Yayladagi, Turkey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden in Dubai at email@example.com.