Turkey launches military exercise near Syrian border

ANKARA Mon May 6, 2013 8:54am EDT

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ANKARA (Reuters) - The Turkish military launched a 10-day exercise at a base near the border with Syria on Monday, where fears of a spillover of violence and of the fallout of any chemical weapons use have escalated in recent weeks.

The exercise at Incirlik, a NATO air base outside the city of Adana where U.S. troops are also stationed, will test the military's readiness for battle and coordination with government ministries, the general staff said in a statement.

"(The exercise will) test joint operations that would be carried out between ministries, public institutions and the armed forces at a time of mobilization and war," it said.

While the exercise in Adana province, some 100 km (60 miles) from the border, was described by NATO's second-biggest military as "planned", it comes at a time of heightened tension.

Turkey is sheltering nearly 400,000 refugees from Syria's more than two-year conflict, has become one of President Bashar al-Assad's most vocal critics, and has scrambled war planes along the border as stray gunfire and shelling hit its soil.

A Turkish border guard was killed and six others wounded last week in a clash with armed men at a border crossing along the 900 km frontier.

Turkish experts are meanwhile testing blood samples taken from Syrian casualties brought to a Turkish hospital from fighting in Syria to determine whether they were victims of a chemical weapons attack.

U.S. President Barack Obama last year said the use or deployment of chemical weapons by Assad would cross a "red line".

Assad's government and the rebels accuse each other of carrying out three chemical weapon attacks, one near Aleppo and another near Damascus, both in March, and another in Homs in December.

The civil war began with anti-government protests in March 2011. The conflict has now claimed an estimated 70,000 lives and forced 1.2 million Syrian refugees to flee.

(Reporting by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Alison Williams)

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