Turkey's Erdogan presses Assad's envoy over unrest

Date: 6/15/2011

By Ibon Villelabeitia Ibon Villelabeitia – Wed Jun 15, 4:05 pm ET

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan held crisis talks with an envoy of Syria's president on Wednesday as Ankara pressed its once well–regarded neighbor to end a crackdown on protesters that it has called "savagery."

Relations between Turkey and Syria have been strained as some 8,500 Syrian refugees have poured across the border into Turkey seeking sanctuary in makeshift camps of tents from an onslaught by President Bashar al–Assad's security forces.

Assad envoy Hassan Turkmani met for almost three hours with Erdogan, who has expressed impatience over Assad's repressive tactics and slowness to reform, as well as anger over a burgeoning humanitarian crisis.

No statements came out of the meeting. But Erdogan, who had a close rapport with Assad, had said before his re–election on Sunday that once the vote was over he would be talking to Assad in a "very different manner."

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the architect of Ankara's policy of cultivating closer ties with Middle East countries including Syria and Iran, went to the border and talked to refugees, including wounded men lying on beds in camp hospitals.

Seeing Davutoglu approach, the Syrians –– men, women and children –– gathered together chanting "Freedom" and "Erdogan."

"I'll talk to Turkmani and will share with him with all frankness what I saw. We are seeing a humanitarian situation here and developments are concerning," Davutoglu told reporters after visiting a camp in Yayladagi, across from the restive Syrian town of Jisr al–Shughour, 20 km (13 miles) away.

He said he would meet with Turkmani in Ankara on Thursday.

Turkmani told journalists before meeting Erdogan the refugees would stay in Turkey for a "short period of time."

"Soon they will be returning. We have prepared everything for them, they have started returning," he said.

Assad asked to send an emissary when he called Erdogan on Tuesday to congratulate him on winning a third term in office.

On Wednesday, a group of refugees in Yayladagi got their message out, chanting "People want freedom!" and "Erdogan help us!," while journalists watched on the other side of the gate.

The crowd was made up of veiled women and young men, some with children on their shoulders. Police did not interfere.


With Assad facing mounting international condemnation, Erdogan has become regarded as a saviour by Syrian refugees.

A 36–year–old Syrian man in a street in the Turkish border village of Guvecci, who gave his name as Ahmed and refused to be filmed, gave a taste of what Davutoglu was likely to hear.

"We decided to flee to Turkey after learning troops arrived in Jisr al–Shughour: I, my wife and six kids. We heard they were burning down the city, including the mosques," he said.

"We came here to protect our family, we're not against them, but they fight us like we were infidels.

"I don't plan to go back until the situation improves there. Some of my relatives were wounded during protests in Jisr al Shughour, one of them was shot in the foot, two were killed, one was shot in the head and is in intensive care now."

Preparations are being made for another influx of refugees far to the east along the 800 km border.

A Turkish Red Crescent official, who requested anonymity, said more tent camps, able to shelter 10,000 people, were being set up near the Turkish city of Mardin and the town of Nusaybin.

Erdogan has called Assad several times since public unrest first broke out in Syria three months ago, each time urging reforms and an end to the bloodshed.

In a telephone call on Tuesday, Erdogan told Assad to avoid using violence against his people and advised him that reforms should be undertaken as soon as possible. Erdogan also raised concern over protests outside Turkey's embassy in Damascus.

The Turkish English–language newspaper Today's Zaman reported that some 2,000 demonstrators marched to the Turkish embassy in Damascus on Sunday and tried to hoist a Syrian flag.


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