The flare-up on Turkey’s border with Syria carries the growing tension between the two countries to a new level.
It’s the first time that Turkish citizens have been killed by fire from the Syrian side of the border. And it’s the first time that Turkey has responded, by shelling selected targets inside Syria.
Ankara is clearly looking to Nato for solidarity and will doubtless win verbal expressions of support.
But at this stage that is unlikely to translate into a move towards joint intervention in the Syrian crisis or support for further escalation of bilateral hostilities.
Both countries are strongly endowed with national pride. Syria was unapologetic after its air defences in June fired on a Turkish military jet which crashed into the sea with the loss of two pilots, amidst disputed circumstances.
Much will now depend on how Damascus reacts to the reported Turkish bombardment.
Several hours after the reports, there was no word from Syria on the extent of the shelling or any damage or casualties.
If neither side is in the mood to carry the exchange further, it may die away now that Turkey has vented its anger in kind, as happens from time to time on the Lebanese border with Israel.
But the incident will further envenom an already bitterly antagonistic relationship, creating further grudges that may find eventual expression.
In a statement, the office of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “Our armed forces in the border region responded immediately to this abominable attack in line with their rules of engagement.”Targets were struck through artillery fire against places in Syria identified by radar.
“Turkey will never leave unanswered such kinds of provocation by the Syrian regime against our national security.”
Syria said it was looking into the origin of the cross-border shelling that hit Akcakale. Information Omran Zoabi added: “Syria offers its sincere condolences to the families of the victims and to our friends the Turkish people.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu contacted UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, the UN’s Syria peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen after the incident.
Mr Ban urged Damascus to respect the territorial sovereignty of its neighbours, saying the cross-border incident “demonstrated how Syria’s conflict is threatening not only the security of the Syrian people but increasingly causing harm to its neighbours”.
Mr Rasmussen told Turkey’s foreign minister that he strongly condemned the incident, a Nato spokeswoman said, and continued to follow developments in the region “closely and with great concern”.
Mr Rasmussen has repeatedly said that Nato has no intention of intervening in Syria but stands ready to defend Turkey if necessary.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: “We are outraged that the Syrians have been shooting across their border… and regretful of the loss of life on the Turkish side.”
UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who is in Turkey on a trade and diplomatic visit, said: “We condemn all violence by the Syrian regime and demand that it avoids any repetition of today’s incident on the border with Turkey,” he said.
Akcakale has been fired on several times over the past few weeks.
The BBC’s Jim Muir says Syrian government forces are attempting to cut rebel supply routes by winning back the border crossing at Tall al-Abyad which the rebels seized last month.
Residents have been advised to stay away from the border, and more than 100 schools have been closed in the region because of the violence in neighbouring Syria.
Turkey’s state-owned Anatolia news agency reported that angry townspeople had marched to the mayor’s office to protest about the deaths on Wednesday.
Town mayor Abdulhakim Ayhan said: “There is anger in our community against Syria,” adding that stray bullets and shells had panicked residents over the past 10 days.
Wednesday’s attack is believed to be only the second time that people have died as a result of violence spilling over the border from Syria into Turkey.
Two Syrian nationals were killed on Turkish soil in April by stray bullets fired from Syria.
In Syria itself, at least 34 people were killed and dozens wounded in a series of bomb explosions in the centre of Syria’s second city, Aleppo, on Wednesday.
The attacks levelled buildings in the city’s main square. A military officers’ club and a hotel being used by the military bore the brunt of the blasts, some of which were carried out by suicide car bombers.
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