Turkish villagers thrust into center of Syria-Turkey tensions

Residents in the Turkish border town at the center of rising military tensions between Turkey and Syria blamed their government in Ankara for not acting to forestall a fatal mortar strike that killed five people here yesterday and left 11 wounded.

Early this morning in Akçakale, relatives of the Ozer and Timucin families buried their dead: 8-year-old Zeynep Timucin, her older sisters Aysegul and Fatos, their mother Zeliha, and aunt Gulsen Ozer.

“Why didn’t the government protect us before they died?” asks Ali Sonis, Mrs. Ozer’s brother, at a community center acting as a house of condolence. “The bombing has been going on for a month…. They wait for someone to die, and then they act.”

“The first fault is our government because they chose the side of the rebels,” he adds. “We support AKP [the Turkish ruling party], but after this situation we will think twice to support them or not.”

Other residents said shells and stray gunfire had started falling in and around the town 15 days earlier, when rebels opposing President Bashar al-Assad seized control of the adjacent Syrian border post of Tal al-Abyad, making it a target for the regime.

Today, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted his country did not want war, but was “capable of defending its citizens and borders” after the Turkish parliament authorized cross-border raids into Syria. “Nobody should try and test our determination on this subject,” he said.

Akcakale’s mayor, Abdulhakim Ayhan, says Prime Minister Erdogan has telephoned him twice since the fatal mortar strike.

“He told me that whatever you need to do here just do it without looking at costs or anything, in order to protect people and whatever needs to be done for security and for families,” he says. 

“I haven’t slept for 30 hours,” he adds. “We have extreme pain here. Five people died and four from the same family. Four are my relatives.”

Strike, counterstrike

According to Akcakale residents, Turkish forces began shelling Syrian positions across the border at around 6 pm yesterday, about two hours after the deadly mortar strike that hit the town. The Syrian shelling ended immediately, they said. The Turks ended their own shelling at around 6 am this morning.

“It is strange that for the first time in weeks the town is silent,” says Halil Cakmak, an official at the town’s municipality. Meanwhile, the Monitor saw police knocking on doors in neighborhoods closest to the border; residents say police were advising them to leave.

Mortar rounds had struck the town several times before, says Mr. Cakmak, but had caused no injuries. “We were waiting for it to happen…. If they had responded just one day before … [these deaths] … would not have happened.”

The bill passed by the Turkish parliament has opened the way for unilateral action by Turkey’s armed forces inside Syria for a year. At the same time, Turkey approved a similar provision used to attack suspected Kurdish rebel positions in northern Iraq.

At an emergency session in Brussels, NATO condemned the attack on Turkey, demanding “the immediate cessation of such aggressive acts against an ally” and urged the Syrian regime to “put an end to flagrant violations of international law.”

Most people who spoke to the Monitor support the government’s retaliatory strikes, but insist that they do not want war.

Outside the courtyard where the Ozer and Timucin families had gathered on Monday afternoon, the walls were pitted with shrapnel holes and flecked with dry blood.

Here, some neighbors expressed anger at being caught in a war they do not regard as their own.

“Before this happened they just told us to be careful, but how could we be careful?” says Ibrahim Ciftci, a farmer. “The government is telling us to leave but where can we go?”

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