- - Monday, June 20, 2011

BERLIN — Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have crossed into Turkey, and thousands more are camped along the border, straining relations between the two Muslim nations and threatening a massive humanitarian crisis, international aid officials and regional analysts say.

Turkish Red Crescent officials told The Washington Times that 30,000 Syrian refugees are living in camps in the southern Turkish province of Hatay, about three times the official number of 10,553 reported by the Turkish government Sunday.

In a phone interview from Ankara, a spokesman for the Red Crescent, who asked not to be named, said Syrians continue to cross the border and officials fear that the number of refugees will grow to the hundreds of thousands as the fighting in the region intensifies.

“We have the capacity to cope with up to 250,000 refugees, but we don’t want it to come to that,” he said. “The Turkish authorities are in talks with the Syrian government to set up camps on the Syrian side of the border.”

The refugee situation escalated after Syrian security forces regained government control of the northwestern city of Jisr al-Shughour from rebels on June 12. Clashes have continued in the area, with government forces launching attacks on surrounding towns and villages.

A newly opened camp in the Turkish town of Reyhanli in Hatay province is one of many providing shelter for refugees from the violence in Syria. Estimates on the number of refugees range from 10,000 to 30,000. (Associated Press)
A newly opened camp in the Turkish town of Reyhanli in Hatay ... more >

On Saturday morning, Bdama, a town of 10,000 about two miles from the Turkish border, was attacked by the Syrian army and the pro-government shabiha militia — Alawite gunmen loyal to President Bashar Assad.

Up to 500 refugees fled the attack and arrived in Turkey over the weekend, officials from the U.N. refugee agency said.

The growing number is likely to cause tensions between the two countries, analysts say.

“If the refugee problem becomes bigger, Turkey will have to follow some policies that the Syrian government may not like,” said Ozgur Ozdamar, a professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara.

He was referring to the prospect that Turkish armed forces may cross into Syria to create a safe zone for refugees.

“This could strain the relations in the near future between the two countries, depending on the magnitude of the refugee flow,” Mr. Ozdamar said.

Officials at the Turkish Foreign Ministry in Ankara said there is “no such thing [as a buffer zone] as of now,” but confirmed that the government has started providing aid to displaced people inside Syria.

Thousands of Syrians are camped along the Syrian side of the border, although the exact number remains unclear.

“There are many reports that there are 10,000, but nobody knows for sure,” said U.N. spokesman Metin Corabatir in Ankara.

What is certain are the harsh reprisals against civilians. Refugees at the border tell tales of direct mortar attacks, poisonings and other terror in the crackdown by Mr. Assad.

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