Tensions rise as Syrian soldiers fire on Turkish pilgrims

Ankara accused Damascus of waging war against fellow Muslims and Turkish pilgrims reported they had been attacked in Syria by government soldiers.

Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, centre right, predicted that Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian premier's days are numbered.
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ISTANBUL // Tensions between Turkey and Syria rose yesterday as Ankara accused Damascus of waging war against fellow Muslims and Turkish pilgrims reported they had been attacked in Syria by government soldiers.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, noted in a speech in Istanbul yesterday that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has vowed to "fight to the death" to preserve his regime.

"Will you fight against your Muslim brothers?" Mr Erdogan said.

In his sharpest criticism against Mr Al Assad yet, Mr Erdogan said the Syrian president's efforts to crush an eight-month rebellion were unacceptable and would fail. The Turkish prime minister, who leads a religiously conservative government and is known as a devout Muslim, laced his remarks with religious overtones.

"We absolutely do not see it as human that in Syria people seeking their rights and demanding a more humane life are met by tanks, artillery and firearms," Mr Erdogan said. "It is impossible for us to accept that people who are praying in the same direction, who believe in Allah and His prophet, are killed in this way."

Mr Erdogan predicted that Mr Al Assad's days in power were numbered. "You can remain in power with tanks and cannons only up to a certain point. One day you will go."

"Sooner or later, the oppressed will win," the prime minister said.

After trying to convince Mr Al Assad to introduce reforms, Turkey turned away from the regime in the summer and started to give support to the Syrian opposition in exile. The leadership of a group of Syrian army deserters fighting the regime, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), is also based in Turkey.

Ankara's change of tack has angered the Syrian government. Last week, Turkish diplomatic missions in Syria were attacked by supporters of Mr Al Assad.

As Mr Erdogan spoke, a group of Turkish pilgrims travelling home from Mecca said their buses had come under attack in Syria. "There is an incident. We are looking into it," a Turkish foreign ministry source told The National.

Turkish media quoted the ministry as saying the attack had occurred at a check point in Syria, a fact that could point to an involvement of security forces, but there was no official statement on the issue.

One of the bus drivers, Erhan Surmeli, also said soldiers carried out the attack. He told the Associated Press that "Syrian soldiers emerged from behind sandbags and cursed Erdogan when we told them we were Turks. Then they suddenly opened fire at the bus."

An opposition umbrella group, the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), said in a statement that two buses had come under fire. The group published a video online showing the aftermath of the attack, the AFP news agency reported.

The LCC said Syrian "military and security forces" had carried out the attack.

One of the pilgrims, Cemil Karli, told the Turkish Anadolu news agency that the convoy of eight or nine buses was stopped by four people travelling in a red car. "They opened fire, and when they saw we were trying to go on, another four emerged and opened fire as well," Mr Karli said: He said he did not know who the attackers were.

Mr Karli and a bus driver were injured in the attack between the Syrian cities of Hama and Homs. Mr Karli said the driver of the bus he was travelling in stepped on the gas and that the vehicle passed through the row of assailants, reaching Turkey without another stop.

The NTV news channel reported that 15,000 Turkish pilgrims were expected to return from Mecca through Syria.

The reported bus attack coincided with deadly early morning raids by Syrian security forces on Homs, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and LCC said.

"Two people were killed and seven others were wounded in Homs while two others died and eight were wounded in [nearby] Qusair by gunfire during raids on Monday morning by the army and security forces," said the Observatory. The military also raided the towns of Karnaz, Latalmleh and Kafar Nabude in the central province of Hama, the Britain-based group added.

Dozens of military vehicles carried troops into Idlib province near the border with Turkey, where heavy machine-gun fire was heard in the village of Ehseen and telephone lines were cut, the Observatory said.

The LCC said that as many as five people, including a Saudi national, were killed in Homs. The LCC, which organises opposition activists on the ground across Syria, said that a similar security operation was conducted in the city of Hama.