YAYLADAGI, Turkey (Reuters) - Syrian rebels are having to find new and more difficult routes to smuggle refugees and wounded civilians and fighters into Turkey after Syrian government forces began torching wooded areas along the border this month.
The deliberate fires appear to be a new tactic by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to flush out hiding rebels and stop civilians escaping. Syrian troops began laying mines along the same border months earlier.
Some wounded die before they can reach medical treatment in Turkey because it can now take up to three times longer to cross the border, rebels inside Turkey told Reuters.
“Assad is trying to block off all our routes. They are starting fires all along the border,” said Abu Ahmad Lahlu, a rebel who helps smuggle Syrian families into Turkey.
“It has become very difficult, we have had to find new routes that take us very far away,” he said at Yayladagi camp, just a kilometer from a border gate in Turkey’s Hatay province.
One of the main crossing points had been a few kilometers away, in the hillier terrain around the Turkish village of Guvecci, but it is no longer an option because of the fires.
Syrian troops stationed in two watchtowers overlooking the slope opposite Guveccei have a far clearer view of anyone moving across through the charred stumps and cinders of brushwood that once hid rebels and fleeing civilians.
The fires have not been lit all along the border, and have initially targeted areas of known rebel or smuggling activity. On Sunday, a Reuters correspondent saw two thick columns of white smoke from fresh fires rising high into the blue sky in separate border areas several kilometers either side of Guvecci.
Outside Yayladagi camp, refugees and fighters from the Free Syrian Army, which is battling Assad’s forces inside Syria, mingle together in the shade of a tree.
Pointing to his dirt-covered clothes, Lahlu says he has just arrived back from one of his near-daily trips across the border but because of the fires he now has to walk much further.
“A one hour journey has now become a three hour journey,” said Lahlu.
“Last week we were carrying a wounded man but he died because we could not get him across in time,” he said.
Malik Ali, one of the camp’s elders who arrived not long after the start of the uprising in Syria some 15 months ago, said government forces were also burning villagers’ crops along the border.
“They are starting these fires to stop the Free Syrian Army, who are hiding in the forests and also to impoverish the people by burning their fields,” he said.
Corroborating people’s stories of what is happening inside Syria is difficult because the government tightly restricts the international media’s access.
Despite the increased difficulty in smuggling people across, Ali said 80 wounded Syrians, mostly civilians, had crossed the border in the last three days because of government offensives in one district of northern Idlib province.
As of June 5, there were almost 27,000 Syrian refugees living in camps in Turkey, according to Turkey’s disaster and emergency organization. Some 2,700 of those fled during the first five days of this month. At least 2,000 more Syrians are reckoned to have found their own refuge inside Turkey.
Syrian troops have also mined many parts of the border around Hatay over the past few months to restrict cross-border movement killing and wounding both rebels and civilians.
Lahlu said the fires had set off some of the mines over the past days but nobody had been killed although one man had lost his leg.
“Assad’s forces want to stop us,” Lahlu said, “but even if it means sacrificing our lives we will continue.”