Civil war in Syria puts Turkey on edge

 

ANTAKYA, Turkey

The intensifying violence in Syria raised alarm on the country's northern border Monday, as Turkey scrambled military jets after Syrian planes bombed rebels fighting on the frontier's edge while panicked civilians crawled across a barbed wire fence separating the two countries.

The incident in the Syrian town of Ras al-Ayn, though relatively minor, helps explain the tension created in Turkey by the conflict in Syria, which has brought the fighting so close to Turkish farming communities that residents routinely can hear the sound of bombs exploding.

It also underscored Turkey's eagerness to get Patriot missiles as a defensive measure, fearing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might deploy missiles with chemical warheads in a last-ditch effort to survive. People here worry that the missiles could spew poison into the air and waft into Turkey, or even stray into Turkish territory, as shells have on several occasions, including as recently as last weekend.

NATO meets Tuesday to decide whether to give the Patriots to Turkey, and Turkish officials have begun scouting potential locations for the missile systems, even though they may not be deployed for several weeks.

Conflicting reports emerged from Damascus, the Syrian capital, about the fate of the spokesman of the Foreign Ministry, Jihad Makdissi.

A statement Monday from the Foreign Ministry said Makdissi, who has strongly defended the government's actions in the civil war, was removed from his post but remained with the ministry. The announcement prompted speculation that he has defected.

But a friend of his reached by phone said that Makdissi was in London, where he once worked in Syria's diplomatic mission and owns a house. The friend said Makdissi was taking a break from the pressure of being the official face of the government in the media while having no security protection for himself or his family. The friend characterized Makdissi's absence as a "withdrawal" rather than a defection.

The frightening incident near Ras al-Ayn started mid-morning Monday, according to a resident of the nearby Turkish town of Ceylanpinar, who spoke by phone.

Opposition activists said a Syrian plane dropped two bombs on rebels in an area where Kurdish and Islamist rebel forces have recently clashed, roughly 300 yards from the border with Turkey. At least 10 people were reported killed, including three children. Turkish ambulances rushed to the border and civilians ran to safety in Turkey over a barbed-wire fence.

Meanwhile, Lebanon's state-run National News Agency reported that Lebanese soldiers in the Bekaa Valley fired into Syria after "armed men" shot at them from Syria on Sunday. There were no known casualties.

Fighting also continued around the Damascus' international airport, which the Syrian regime had announced on Sunday was open and running scheduled flights for the first time in three days. EgyptAir, however, cancelled a flight while en route from Cairo to Damascus on Monday and ordered it to turn around, citing the "bad security situation," the Reuters news agency reported.

The towns and suburbs around the airport have seen some of the fiercest fighting in recent days between government troops and opposition forces.

- - -

Washington Post special correspondent Suzan Haidamous in Beirut contributed to this report.

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