The state-run Anatolia news agency reported late on Wednesday that Syrian troops started firing on a group of people trying to escape to Turkey, fleeing violence in Syria. The group was trying to pass through the Öncüpınar border post in Turkey's southern province of Kilis, bypassing areas full of landmines.
The report said there was short-lived panic among the group when bullets started whizzing and hitting containerized housing units where Syrian refugees are currently housed. It was not immediately clear if anyone died or was injured on the Syrian side. Those who could make it to the Turkish side were taken into the refugee camp.
Fleeing a year-long crackdown on anyone who opposes the government, the refugees had hoped to find sanctuary just inside the Turkish border. But instead, on the eve of a UN-backed cease-fire, they say the bloodshed they were seeking to escape has come to their doorstep, spreading fear and the occasional stray bullet among thousands of men, women and children.
“The last two nights we've been right next to the fighting,” 26-year old Tarek told Reuters, who fled the town of Jisr al-Shughur nine months ago. “As soon as people in the camp hear a gunshot now, they dive to the floor. People on the side closest to the border go hide in the homes of those on the farther side of the camp.”
The fighting continued to rage on Wednesday evening, he said. “We couldn't see the fighters because it is dark. But we could hear heavy gunfire and I saw red tracers in the sky.”
Syria has promised to observe a UN-backed cease-fire starting on Thursday, but its forces kept up fierce attacks on opposition neighborhoods in the hours before the deadline. There are nearly 25,000 Syrian refugees registered in three provinces. On April 5 alone, more than 2,800 crossed over from the Syrian region of Idlib.
Most of the refugees are housed in camps in Turkey's southern provinces of Hatay and Gaziantep, but the government has moved 9,000 to a container housing city in Kilis province. After an unexpected surge in refugee numbers in early April, 905 refugees were settled at a new site in Şanlıurfa province.
Turkey is also considering setting up a “security” or “buffer” zone along its border with Syria, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on March 16. Syrian forces have laid mines near the frontiers of Lebanon and Turkey along routes used to escape the conflict, advocacy group Human Rights Watch has said.
On Monday, Turkey said two officials working in a refugee camp near the border were among the five people wounded by gunfire coming from Syria as troops clashed with opposition fighters nearby. Turkey warned Syria against repeating its cross-border attacks, saying Turkey will take necessary measures if similar incidents happen again. Erdoğan told reporters on Tuesday that Turkey will do what is necessary and called Syria's cross-border attack a “border violation.”
Under an $84 million UN appeal launched last month to support refugees for six months, 50,000 would be covered in Turkey, with a contingency plan for 100,000.