Kurds seize town on Syrian-Turkish border

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 18, 2013 11:11 AM
Kurds seize town on Syrian-Turkish border

By Jonathon Burch

ANKARA (Reuters) - A Syrian Kurdish party with links to Kurdish militants in Turkey has seized control of a Syrian town on the Turkish border after days of clashes with Islamist fighters, the Turkish military said.

The capture of Ras al-Ain by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) will fuel Ankara's fears that the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria could embolden homegrown militants of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is fighting for autonomy in Turkey.

Turkey's foreign minister voiced concern at the spillover of violence from Syria and again urged the U.N. Security Council, which has yet to reach a consensus on the war, to take action.

In a statement late on Wednesday, the military said the town of Ras al-Ain in northeast Syria had fallen under the control of the PYD, which it described as a "separatist terrorist organization". Fighting in the town has stopped, it said.

Turkish troops shot at PYD fighters in Syria in line with their rules of engagement after two rocket-propelled grenades fired from Syria struck a border post on the Turkish side.

The return fire was the second time in as many days that the military had answered in kind. Stray bullets from Syria struck the police headquarters and several homes in the adjacent Turkish town of Ceylanpinar on Tuesday.

A Turkish citizen was killed and a 15-year-old boy seriously wounded by the stray fire, in the most serious spillover of violence into Turkey from Syria in weeks. Earlier, officials said the boy had died of his wounds, but later they said he was still in a critical condition and had been moved to Ankara.

The military said it had strengthened security along that part of the border with armored vehicles.

The clashes between Kurdish fighters, who want an autonomous region within Syria, and Islamist Arab fighters from the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front started on Tuesday after Nusra fighters attacked a Kurdish patrol, according to an anti-government Syrian activist group.

Clashes between Kurds affiliated with the PYD and Syrian and foreign fighters opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have erupted since Kurds began asserting control over parts of the northeast from late last year.

PEACE PROCESS

Turkey, with its own large Kurdish minority, has been watching closely, concerned that a Kurdish power grab to the south could strengthen PKK militants in Turkey with whom it has embarked on a peace process. Developments in Syria could threaten that process, which is already under pressure amid an increase in militant activity in Turkey.

On Thursday, the PKK accused Ankara of being behind the violence in Ras al-Ain.

"Turkey is directly behind the attacks, particularly in Serekaniye," the PKK said in a statement published by the Firat news agency which has close links to the militants. Serekaniye is the Kurdish name for Ras al-Ain.

"This fact alone shows how much the revolution in Rojava frightens those who are anti-Kurdish," it said, referring to the Kurdish region in northeastern Syria.

Turkey's main pro-Kurdish party, the BDP, has accused Ankara of directly backing Nusra and affiliated groups. Turkey is one of the strongest backers of Syria's anti-Assad rebels, though it has tried to distance itself from groups like Nusra.

Nihat Ali Ozcan, an expert on the PKK and security at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) think-tank, said the events in Syria would likely embolden the PKK.

"Firstly, there will be a psychological effect, and as the PKK watches these developments they will make more maximalist demands from the government. They will sit down to negotiations with the government as a much stronger actor," Ozcan said.

"The PKK has gained an important resource in the area, it has gained depth and will also make economic gains. This is good news for the PKK," he said.

Turkey's foreign minister expressed concern over the events.

"This illustrates a striking picture of how much the crisis in Syria can affect us and our citizens," state-run broadcaster TRT quoted Ahmet Davutoglu as saying in Ankara on Wednesday.

Turkey, which has the second largest army in NATO, is reluctant to act unilaterally in Syria, although it has scrambled warplanes along the border as gunfire and shelling hit its soil. Turkey hosts around 500,000 Syrian refugees.

(Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker; Writing by Jonathon Burch, Editing by Gareth Jones)