Ex-pat Syrians camp on Turk border, convoy barred

KILIS, Turkey Fri Jan 13, 2012 7:59am EST

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KILIS, Turkey (Reuters) - Dozens of Syrian expatriates from a convoy barred from taking aid into Syria camped overnight near Turkey's border with their homeland in a protest against President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on protests.

Drawn from California to the Arab Gulf, up to 150 people, mainly Syrian diaspora, had come to Turkey to join a campaign launched on the social network website Facebook for a "Freedom Convoy to Syria."

"I am participating here to send a message to the people of Syria that the people abroad stand with them. We are also sending a message to the regime that Syrians abroad care," Amar Babelli, a customs clearance officer in Dublin, told Reuters.

Now 43, Babelli left Syria to study abroad when he was 19, but he plans to go home if Assad is forced from power by protests and a growing armed insurgency.

"After the regime collapses and democracy is established, I plan to be there. I'm sure the regime is finished but it is costing a lot of lives," he said, at the camp set up on a baseball pitch surrounded by muddy fields near the town of Kilis, some 15 km (10 miles) from the border.

The convoy of buses and cars had left Gaziantep, a city in southeast Turkey, Thursday, only to be denied entry to Syria a few hours later.

Wrapped in blankets, some 35 activists emerged from their flimsy tents Friday morning shivering against the cold and rain. They had kept spirits up chanting protest slogans and singing Arabic songs.

RETURN TO BORDER

Turkish soldiers handed out cups of hot tea, but the Turkish authorities said they had not extended official support.

"It was absolutely freezing. It was one of the toughest nights we have ever had. But it was also one of the most enjoyable nights," said Hussam Arwani, 27, who runs a family business in Dubai, but hails from Hama, a town that is one of the focal points of resistance against Assad.

"We spoke all night long. We shared all of the things which we've experienced. We tried to feel what our people inside Syria are feeling," he said.

Others members of the convoy spent the night in nearby towns.

The protesters planned to visit the border again later on Friday and aimed to stay in the region for three days.

Some of the activists said their own relatives had been killed by Assad's security forces, others said they had left Syria after being tortured, while some came from families who had quit the country decades earlier, when Assad's father carried out an even more violent repression.

"My father left the country in 1981 after the massacre in Hama... He was beaten and tortured," said Mazen Hachimi, a 29-year-old credit risk analyst from Riyadh.

"It is the hope of all of Syrians abroad to rebuild our country, into a democratic one without extremists forces."

Tarif Khashaneh, 39, left his home in a Damascus suburb in March, when the anti-Assad protests broke out, and found work with an IT company in Saudi Arabia.

"We are trying to help to relieve the suffering of the people there. but there is no way to reach them. By being here we are sending the message that we share their suffering," Khashaneh said.

Wearing a pre-Assad green, white and black Syrian flag wrapped around his neck, Khashaneh said there were proposals for more protest action in Turkey's southeast province of Hatay, where several thousand Syrian refugees have been given shelter in camps.

"God willing, next time we will protest in Antakya and we will bring more people, more than a thousand, thousands."

(Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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