Thousands of displaced Syrians cross to Turkey as time runs out

Witnesses say the fighting is so close that bullets are landing in Turkey

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The Independent Online

The fighting which has raged in the north of Syria for months now threatens to spill over into Turkey and has forced thousands of refugees to cross the border in the past three days alone.

As many as 3,000 people have fled the fighting since Wednesday, taking the total crowding the refugee camps to 25,000.

As the fighting has intensified ahead of the deadline for an internationally brokered ceasefire on Tuesday, the offensive by the regime's forces has moved to within six miles of the border.

A Syrian activist who smuggles humanitarian supplies into the country said the fighting was so close that bullets were crossing the border. "They are hitting inside Turkey," he said, adding that Turkish forces were growing frustrated with the lack of action when the sounds of fighting could be heard day and night and the lives of Turkish citizens were being put at risk.

When The Independent visited the border recently, gunfire could be heard not far off. A family living nearby described being too scared to work in their garden.

One Turkish official denied that Turkish people and property were being hit, but confirmed that the Syrian military had increased the use of helicopters to put down the rebellion. "I can see the helicopters with my own eyes," he said. "I am looking at one now."

The testimony chimes with the accounts of refugees. Mohammed Khatib, recently arrived in Turkey, told Reuters: "The army is destroying buildings and bombing them till they turn to charcoal. The army wants people to move out of their houses. If the residents refuse, they destroy them with the people inside."

Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has called into question Bashar al-Assad's promise to implement a ceasefire brokered by the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

"He shoots people, but pretends he is withdrawing troops," Mr Erdogan said. "He is not withdrawing troops, but he is duping the international community."

The UN estimates that at least 9,000 people have been killed during the year-long uprising. Turkey has expressed a willingness to assist the refugees as much as possible, but could be reaching the point where it needs assistance from the international community.

Contingency plans for a buffer zone on the Syrian side have been drafted in case the flood of refugees threatens to overwhelm Turkish capabilities.

Nouriddin al-Abdo, an activist in Idlib, claimed that the Syrian military was actually preparing for a new assault and was massing about 3,000 troops to attack the mountainous Jabal al-Zawiya area in the north-west of the country, where members of the Free Syrian Army and civilians are hiding in the forested terrain.