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On the Turkish border, a stream of fleeing Syrians
KAVALCIK, Turkey |
KAVALCIK, Turkey (Reuters) - The Syrian refugees appeared silently through the late morning fog, at first one by one, then in groups of five or more, settling on the damp grass just behind the barbed wire fence that separates their homeland from Turkey.
Within an hour up to 100 people, mostly women carrying babies or leading young children, sat huddled, clutching what little possessions they could carry across the hills, and waited patiently for the Turkish military to arrive before crossing over to register and be transported to camps.
The refugees are from Killi, a village only a few kilometers from the Turkish border in Syria's Idlib province, a new flashpoint in the one-year-old brutal crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad and his army on anti-government protesters.
"They are bombing Idlib. They are bombing the city. They have tanks and they have rockets," Abdul Samad, one of the refugees, shouted through the fence.
"The rebels came and said: 'The army is going to hit your village tonight. Get out.' And so we walked here," said Samad, dressed in a traditional black gown.
"We won't go back until Assad has gone."
Idlib has seen a marked rise in violence over the past few weeks by both Syrian forces and army defectors. Opposition activists said the army had killed dozens of people in Idlib city on Tuesday while rebels had killed 10 loyalist troops.
ARRIVING ON HORSEBACK
As Samad shouts through the fence, a steady stream of new arrivals appear through the mist. An old woman is helped down from a frail horse by her smuggler guides before they head back into the mist to bring others.
Young girls, aged no more than six or seven, run around picking purple flowers while a group of older boys sit and play cards as if waiting in a departure lounge.
Spotting an opportunity, one man produces a set of small speakers and begins blasting out anti-Assad songs. He grins as he cranks the volume up until the tinny speakers distort.
A small opening in the barbed wire fence that marks this part of the border along Turkey's Hatay province, now serves as one of several crossing points for Syrians fleeing the violence.
They come, even though their journey to Turkey is fraught with danger.
Advocacy group Human Rights Watch says Syrian forces have laid mines near the borders of Lebanon and Turkey along escape routes.
Bilal Abdul Rahim, a new arrival from the northern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughour said he had seen mines along the border when he crossed six days ago.
"They want to stop us escaping," he said.
A Reuters reporter counted around 100 people waiting to cross through the fence at this part of the border just five minutes walk from the Turkish village of Kavalcik.
Over the past few weeks, the number of Syrians crossing daily into Turkey has increased by as much as six times, with anything from 200 to 300 people now coming to Turkey every day, Turkish officials say.
There are some 13,000 registered Syrian refugees now living in tented camps in Hatay with an estimated 2,000 more unregistered people staying with relatives and friends in surrounding villages and towns.
The United Nations said on Tuesday an estimated 30,000 refugees have fled Syria since the start of the conflict a year ago, while hundreds of thousands are thought to be displaced within Syria.
Turkey fears a surge of refugees, similar to the tens of thousands who crossed from Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. Ankara has signaled a tide of refugees is one of the factors that could trigger efforts to establish a 'safe zone' on the Syrian side of the border.
Having ditched its earlier friendship with Assad because of his refusal to swap repression for reform, Turkey is now at the forefront of efforts to galvanize international action to stop the violence spiraling into civil war.
Istanbul will host the second meeting of the "Friends of Syria", grouping mostly Arab and Western countries on April 2. Syria's political opposition also meet regularly in Istanbul, while soldiers from the rebel Free Syrian Army have been given sanctuary at tented refugee camps in Hatay.
The seven camps there are fast approaching capacity and a new container city is being constructed further east in Kilis province that will house all existing and new refugees.
Construction workers are racing to ready the Kilis camp -- already months behind schedule -- and officials say they hope to open it at the beginning of April.
"We are trying to fill all the empty spaces at the existing camps. At the moment we can cope," said a Turkish official on condition of anonymity.
"But if tens of thousands come, then we will have problems."
At the nearby Reyhanli camp, problems already appear visible. White mini buses ferry new arrivals from yet another crossing a few kilometers away into the camp that seems already at capacity.
Men linger outside the camp, talking. A section of the perimeter fence has been brought down so people can come and go more freely.
Thirty-five-year-old Mohammad stands in a tracksuit smoking outside the camp. His right trouser leg is pulled up to his knee revealing a metal brace around his lower leg.
Mohammad said he had been protesting against Assad in Al Atarib, a town near his home in Kili when soldiers opened fire.
"They shot me in my leg. They just opened fire on everyone," said Mohammad, who gave only one name for fear of reprisals.
"They are killing all the men, wherever they are."
Friends carried Mohammad on their shoulders across the hills to Turkey 15 days ago where he received surgery on his leg.
"We want Bashar al-Assad to fall. We just want life to return to normal," he said.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)
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