- - 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.

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.

“There was some kind of scorched-earth policy in that area which has driven them out,” said Amnesty International investigator Neil Sammonds, who spoke to refugees at the border.

“Many told me of tanks shelling houses, of the security forces machine-gunning their cows, setting fire to their crops, and even before the army came in just over two weeks ago, the water supply was poisoned.”

Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, said the situation in the camps in Syria is dire.

“They don’t have access to clean water or bathing facilities, and there is very little food,” he said. “It’s hot, the camp smells bad, and as the army approaches, people feel very insecure out in the open because the army is now within viewing distance of the border.”

Still, he said, the refugees are relatively safe for the moment.

“It freaked many people out because it’s the last big town before the Turkish border,” Mr. Bouckaert said of Saturday’s attack on Bdama. “We were detained by the Turkish army yesterday, and they told us that they wouldn’t let the Syrian army come to the border.”

Bdama also had the area’s only remaining large bakery, which was an important source of food for the displaced. It has been shut down by the Syrian military, Mr. Bouckaert said.

Despite increasingly difficult conditions, many Syrians are holding off crossing into Turkey, aid officials said.

“Once they cross the border, they are put on buses and dropped at the camps where they live quite an isolated existence,” Mr. Bouckaert said.

“On the Turkish side, there certainly is a very efficient humanitarian and medical operation, but our concern is that it is also a very restrictive one in terms of barring people from access to freedom of movement, as well as preventing most international observers from entering the camp.”

Mr. Sammonds of Amnesty International said Syrians fear reprisals from the Syrian authorities if they leave.

“Some were saying to me, ‘If we leave and the regime doesn’t fall, then we’re not going to able to come back. If we do come back, we’re going to be sentenced to prison for six years for leaving unofficially.’ “

On Saturday, representatives of aid organizations visited two of the five camps in the Hatay province. This was the first access granted international aid agencies and coincided with a visit from the U.N. goodwill ambassador, actress Angelina Jolie.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been increasingly outspoken in his criticism of the Assad regime’s suppression of the uprising in Syria. Two weeks ago, he told Turkish television that the repression of protesters in Syria amounted to “savagery.”

c Correspondent Nurhan Kocaoglu contributed to this report.

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