ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey’s prime minister said on Friday his country did not want war but warned Syria not to make a “fatal mistake” by testing its resolve, and its army retaliated for a third day running after more mortar rounds from Syria landed on its soil.
In a belligerent speech to a crowd in Istanbul, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that Turkey would not shy away from war if provoked.
The speech followed a Syrian mortar barrage on a town in southeast Turkey that killed five people on Wednesday.
Turkish artillery bombarded Syrian military targets on Wednesday and Thursday in response, killing several Syrian soldiers, and the Turkish parliament authorized cross-border military action in the event of further aggression.
“We are not interested in war, but we’re not far from war either. This nation has come to where it is today having gone through intercontinental wars,” Erdogan said in his speech.
“Those who attempt to test Turkey’s deterrence, its decisiveness, its capacity, I say here they are making a fatal mistake.”
At least two mortar bombs fired from Syria landed in farmland in Turkey’s southern Hatay province on Friday, one of them around 50 meters into Turkish territory, and a military unit responded immediately, Hatay Governor Celalettin Lekesiz was quoted as saying by the state-run Anatolian news agency.
A government official told Reuters there had been similar incidents over the past ten days due to intensifying skirmishes on the Syrian side of the border, and that the Turkish army had been responding in kind. But he said Wednesday’s fatal strike on the town of Akcakale had been of a different magnitude.
“If there was gunfire, we returned the gunfire, if there was a shell we returned two or three shells, to warn them and deter them. Until Akcakale we were not very concerned that they were deliberate,” the official said, asking not to be identified.
“Wednesday was different. There were five or six rounds into the same place. That’s why we responded a couple of times, to warn and deter. To tell the (Syrian) military to leave. We think they’ve got the message and have pulled back from the area.”
Turkish broadcaster NTV said Syria had given the order for its warplanes and helicopters not to enter an area within 10 km (six miles) of the Turkish border and had ordered its artillery units not to fire shells in areas close to the border.
There was no confirmation of this from the Syrian authorities.
At the United Nations, the Security Council condemned the original Syrian attack and demanded that such violations of international law stop immediately.
The United States has said it stands by its NATO ally’s right to defend itself against aggression spilling over from Syria’s war. Russia, a staunch ally of Syria, appealed to Turkey to stay calm and avoid any action that could increase tensions.
Russia said on Thursday it had received assurances from Damascus that the strike on Turkey had been a tragic accident but Erdogan dismissed it, saying this was the eighth time Syrian mortar rounds had hit Turkish ground.
The cross-border violence was the most serious so far in the conflict, now in its 19th month, and underscored how it could flare across the region.
Turkey, once an Assad ally and now a leading voice in calls for him to quit, shelters more than 90,000 Syrian refugees in camps on its territory and has allowed rebel army leaders sanctuary.
There is little public appetite in Turkey for sustained military intervention in Syria, but government ministers have struck a bellicose tone.
“If Turkey had been a country that was interested in going to war, when the plane was downed it could have used that as an excuse and flattened Syria,” EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis was quoted as saying on Friday, referring to Turkey’s restraint when Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet in June.
“Thankfully Turkey’s military power today is at the point where it could destroy Syria within a few hours. But we don’t have any problem with the Syrian people,” Bagis was quoted as saying by the Radikal newspaper.
More than 30,000 people have been killed in the revolt against Assad, which began with peaceful street protests but is now a full-scale civil war also fought on sectarian lines.
Across the country about 180 people were killed in violence on Thursday, including 48 government soldiers, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The rebels said they had captured an air defense base with a cache of missiles outside Damascus on Thursday, a boost to their campaign after a series of setbacks in the capital.
Video posted on YouTube of the aftermath of the assault showed dozens of rebels dressed in army fatigues celebrating as black smoke rose from a military installation behind them.
A middle-aged man holding a rifle says the attack was carried out by a rebel battalion from the town of Douma. It also showed rebels at a weapons cache which included what appeared to be part of a surface-to-air missile.
It was not possible to independently verify the videos. Access to Syria for foreign journalists is restricted by the Syrian government.
Although fighting often takes place in the Damascus suburbs, rebel forces have been unable to hold areas for long in the face of government artillery and air power. They have staged devastating bomb attacks on government and military offices in the heart of the city, however.
The U.N. condemnation was issued after two days of negotiations on an initial text rejected by Russia.
Consensus within the council on Syria-related matters is unusual and it has been deadlocked over the conflict, with veto-wielding Russia and China rejecting calls to sanction the Damascus government.
Additional reporting by Daren Butler in Istanbul and Ayat Basma in Beirut; Writing by Nick Tattersall and Oliver Holmes; Editing by Andrew Roche