Riots in Turkish refugee camps after Syrian duo are sent back

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of Syrian refugees in Turkey have rioted after two fellow asylum-seekers were spirited back to Syria in mysterious circumstances.

Turkish officials claimed the men were sent back after a "mistake in translation" made authorities believe they were economic migrants rather than refugees fleeing repression.

However, the incident – coming after a defecting Syrian soldier was deported earlier this year – has increased tension in camps along the border.

Some of the 400 people who rioted on Monday left the Reyhanli refugee camp to block the road to Syria for about two hours, stopping cars with Syrian licence plates and clashing with local police. A number of people were injured in the unrest.

The two men returned to Syria – Azzam Haj Mahmoud and Omar Mahmoud Asheikh –had arrived in Turkey more than a week ago and were taken to Reyhanli, where some of the more than 8,000 refugees living along the border are based.

Refugees said that after five days the pair were told by camp authorities they had to return to the border to register with a gendarme.

They were driven to the frontier on Saturday and have not been heard from since.

When one refugee, Mahmoud Mosa, contacted Turkish government employees working on the border, he was told the two had been returned to Syria from the Bab al-hawa border gate.

"I alerted the person in charge of regional affairs but he refused to ask about the situation," said Mosa. "He said it was impossible and that he would not ask about it."

Later on Monday Turkish officials told refugees in the camp the men had been sent back after a translation error.

The gendarme had thought the pair had said they had fled north into Turkey to seek work, officials claimed. This is not the first time Turkish authorities have been accused of sending refugees back to Syrian.

In August this year Lt Col Hussein Harmoush, who had emerged as a leader of defected soldiers, disappeared after leaving a Turkish refugee camp.

Two weeks later he appeared on Syrian state television to admit having played a role in the uprising against President Bashar Assad.

"Shall we wait for two more to be sent back?," Essam Haj Mahmoud, the brother of one of the two missing refugees, has now demanded.

Meanwhile, the US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, was yesterday due to return to its capital Damascus just over six weeks after he left amid fears for his safety.

Mr Ford had angered the regime by voicing support for anti-Government demonstrators.

Washington has insisted his presence in the country is important so he can witness the unrest first-hand.

The development came as Syrian activists yesterday said fresh violence in the city of Homs had killed up to 50 people in 24 hours.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 34 bodies were dumped on the streets after a spate of kidnappings.

The deaths dashed hopes that Syria might be about to soften its approach after agreeing to Arab League demands to let observers into the country.