Some 1,000 Syrian refugees, including a defecting general, crossed into Turkey in 24 hours, braving landmines laid to stop them by Syria’s troops, Turkish officials said Thursday.
The head of the Turkish Red Crescent meanwhile warned that the number of Syrians arriving in Turkey could reach half a million if Bashar al-Assad’s regime keeps up its year-long crackdown on dissent.
Foreign ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal told reporters in Ankara the number of Syrians currently being given shelter in Turkey had now reached 14,700.
“With the Syrian general who arrived yesterday, we now host seven generals on our side of the border,” he said, declining to identify the officer as it would be against international asylum law.
The rebel Free Syrian Army, comprising deserters from Assad’s forces, has been allowed by Ankara to establish a base in southern Turkey’s Hatay province to plan operations against the regime.
Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay accused the Syrian army of using lethal force to stop people trying to flee the unrest. “Many have lost their lives,” he said.
“The Syrian administration has been planting mines, taking measures not to allow refugees to flee to the other side of the border,” Atalay charged.
Red Crescent head Ahmet Lutfi Akar said his organisation expected more refugees to cross into Hatay province, at the western end of the Turkish-Syrian border, in the coming days.
“There are various scenarios that this figure may climb up to 500,000,” the Anatolia news agency quoted him as saying.
Akar said Turkey was ready to meet all the needs of the Syrian refugees, even if their numbers equal those of the half-million Iraqi Kurds who poured into Turkey to escape Saddam Hussein’s repression during the 1991 Gulf War.
“We are getting ready for any scenario, there is the expectation that the numbers will rise,” foreign ministry spokesman Unal agreed.
In Sanliurfa province, near the halfway point of the 910-kilometre (560-mile) border, Turkey has already started building a massive camp site that can house up to 20,000 people, Anatolia news agency reported Wednesday.
Turkey is also establishing a “city” in Kilis, between Hatay and Sanliurfa, made of prefabricated homes to house the refugees, with some 10,000 due to be initially transferred to the site from camps in Hatay.
The number of arrivals has escalated sharply following the Syrian army seizure of rebel-held areas in Homs and Idlib in recent weeks after bloody assaults.