Reports from the Syrian-Turkish border: the failure of Kofi Annan’s ceasefire

April 2012: Two of the Associated Press reports I contributed to while based in the Turkish border provinces. The first one is about accounts of mass graves in Taftanaz, the second one on the killing of some Syrian refugees in Kilis (Turkey), after the Syrian tropps opened fire across the border. In those days UN envoy Kofi Annan witnessed the failure of his truce plan. 

Thousands of Syrians flee into Turkey with tales of mass graves, massacres

April 6, 2012

By Andrea Glioti and Elizabeth A. Kennedy(Associated Press)

REYHANLI, Turkey — After days of relentless shelling and sniper attacks, thousands of Syrian refugees streamed across the border into Turkey with horrific accounts Friday of mass graves, massacres and burned-out homes.

The latest reports of escalating violence fueled accusations that President Bashar Assad is rushing to stamp out as much of the year-old uprising as he can before a United Nations-brokered cease-fire next week.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the Syrian government Friday. Ban said in a statement that the situation was rapidly deteriorating, affecting more than 1 million people, with an alarming number of refugees streaming into neighboring countries.

“The (April 10) time line to fulfill the government’s implementation of its commitments, as endorsed by the Security Council, is not an excuse for continued killing,” Ban said, adding that such actions violate the consensus position of the Security Council. “The Syrian authorities remain fully accountable for grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. These must stop at once.”

The trigger for the new waves of refugees was an offensive in Idlib province, which borders Turkey and has become increasingly rebellious against the Assad regime.

Activists reported about 100 dead in the villages of Taftanaz and Killi in recent days.

A photograph provided to the Associated Press by a Syrian activist showed at least a dozen corpses wrapped in blankets in what appeared to be a mass grave in Taftanaz. The AP could not verify the authenticity of the photograph, but witnesses also described a mass grave.

Hikmet Saban, a Syrian refugee who reached Turkey, described the devastation in Taftanaz, located several miles outside the city of Idlib.

“Helicopters and tanks are bombarding continuously,” he told Turkey’s government-run Anadolu agency. “Taftanaz has been burnt to the ground for three days.”

Activists posted video they said showed a helicopter gunship firing a missile at Taftanaz and a mosque hit by shelling.

The escalating violence has dimmed hopes that the fighting, which the UN says has killed more than 9,000 people, will end anytime soon.

The country appears to be spiraling toward civil war.

Syria, a vital geopolitical linchpin, borders five other nations and has close ties to Iran and powerful militant groups, such as Lebanon’s Hizballah.

Last week, Assad accepted a cease-fire deadline brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan, which calls for his forces to pull out of towns and cities by Tuesday and for everyone to lay down their arms by 6 a.m. local time Thursday.

Syria denies that the revolt is a popular uprising at all, saying instead that it is facing a foreign conspiracy by armed gangs and terrorists who want to destroy the country.

On Friday, Syria’s government-run news agency, SANA, appeared to acknowledge the recent spike in violence, but again blamed terrorism.

Syria sent letters to the United Nations and UN Security Council that said “acts committed by terrorists groups escalated especially after the agreement over Kofi Annan’s plan was reached,” SANA reported.

But witnesses who streamed in Turkey said regime forces were driving the bloodshed.

The stream of Syrians fleeing to Turkey has picked up considerably, with about one-third of the total of 24,000 refugees arriving in the past two weeks. Some 2,500 crossed the border on Thursday alone, said Ankara’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, adding that the daily flow has doubled since Syria promised last week to abide by the truce.

Syrians fleeing to Turkey

Syria fires over borders with Lebanon, Turkey

AP foreign, Monday April 9 2012

ELIZABETH A. KENNEDY

Associated Press= BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian forces opened fire across two tense borders Monday, killing a TV journalist in Lebanon and wounding at least six people in a refugee camp in Turkey on the eve of a deadline for a cease-fire that seems all but certain to fail.

A witness at the Turkish camp said he saw two refugees killed, although that account could not be independently confirmed.

Across Syria, activists reported particularly heavy violence with more than 125 people killed in the past two days.

The Obama administration expressed outrage at the violence spilling over the frontiers, saying the Syrian government appeared to have little commitment to the peace plan that was negotiated by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan.

The latest bloodshed was a sign of how easily Syria’s neighbors could be drawn into a regional conflagration as President Bashar Assad’s crackdown on a year-old uprising becomes increasingly militarized, despite desperate diplomatic efforts.

Annan brokered a cease-fire that was supposed to begin with Syria pulling its troops out of population centers by Tuesday morning, with a full cease-fire by both sides within 48 hours. But hopes for the plan collapsed after a fresh wave of violence and new demands by the regime for written guarantees that the opposition will lay down arms first.

Naci Koru, Turkey’s deputy foreign minister, said Tuesday’s deadline for the withdrawal has become “void at this stage,” state-run TRT television reported.

The U.N. estimates some 9,000 people have been killed in Syria since March 2011, when the uprising began with mostly peaceful protests against Assad. But a government crackdown led many Syrians take up weapons, transforming the conflict into an insurgency.

On Monday, Syrian forces fired across the border into a refugee camp in Turkey, wounding at least six people, authorities said.

The soldiers were believed to be firing at rebels who tried to escape to the refugee camp after ambushing a Syrian military checkpoint, killing six soldiers, according to the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The troops kept firing as they pursued rebels who made a run for the camp, sending bullets whizzing across the frontier, the Observatory said.

Turkish authorities said four Syrians and two Turks were wounded, including a Turkish translator who had entered the camp to try to calm an anti-Assad protest.

But one witness, Tareq Abdul-Haqq, told The Associated Press by telephone from the camp that he saw two refugees killed in front of him.

He said the two were in a crowd that was shouting anti-Assad slogans during a demonstration that erupted after word got through the camp that rebels had ambushed the Syrian checkpoint.

“They started chanting ‘God is Great!’ and the army and the security forces targeted them,” Abdul-Haqq, 26, told The Associated Press by telephone.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry also reported two deaths, but under different circumstances.

According to the ministry, 21 wounded Syrians were brought to Turkey on Monday, but that two of them died soon after. It was not immediately possible to reconcile the two accounts.

“Syrian citizens who have fled the violence by the current Syrian regime are under the full protection of Turkey,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Turkey shelters some 24,000 Syrian refugees, including hundreds of army defectors, and has floated the idea of setting up a buffer zone inside Syria if the flow of displaced people across its border becomes overwhelming.

The countries share a 911-kilometer (566-mile) border, and parts of southern Turkey are informal logistics bases for rebels, who collect food and other supplies and smuggle them to comrades across the border in Syria.

Monday’s shooting was believed to be the first inside Turkey, although there have been similar cross-border attacks into Lebanon.

Syrian troops fired about 40 rounds across the border into northern Lebanon, killing a cameraman for Lebanon’s Al Jadeed television station, the station said. The camera crew were in Lebanese territory.

Ali Shaaban, who was born in 1980, was shot through the chest as he sat in a car and died on the way to the hospital, Lebanese security officials said.

“If you see the car, you would think it was in a war zone,” Shaaban’s colleague, Hussein Khreis, told the station. “It is completely destroyed from the bullets.”

The station said on its website that its staff “crawled for around two hours, during which we were under constant fire from the Syrian army.”

“I ask forgiveness from Ali’s family because I couldn’t do anything for him,” Khreis said in a broadcast on Al Jadeed, breaking into tears.

Shaaban is at least the ninth journalist killed while covering the conflict in Syria, including award-winning French TV reporter Gilles Jacquier, photographer Remi Ochlik and Britain’s Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said Syria is now the most dangerous place for journalists in the world.

The Obama administration condemned the cross-border attacks.

“We certainly have seen no signs yet of the Assad regime abiding by its commitments,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland added: “We join the Turkish government in calling for the Syrian regime to immediately cease fire.”

“Not only has the violence not abated, it has been worse in recent days,” she said.

Annan, an envoy to Syria for the U.N. and the Arab League, has tried to broker a cease-fire which would pave the way for talks to end the crisis. But the Assad regime introduced a new, last-minute demand Sunday, saying it cannot withdraw without written guarantees from opposition fighters that they will lay down their arms.

Syria’s main rebel group, the Free Syrian Army, rejected the demand for a written guarantee, but said it will abide by its promise under Annan’s plan to stop fighting — as long as the regime does too.

“We as protectors of the Syrian people announce a cease-fire against the regime’s army starting on the morning of April 10 and we will stick to this promise if the regime abides by the clauses of the initiative,” a member of the FSA’s military council said in a YouTube video.

The Syrian opposition and Western leaders had been skeptical all along that Assad would live up to his commitment to a truce. He has broken similar promises in the past and escalated attacks on opposition strongholds in the days leading up to the deadline.

But Annan’s spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, held out hope. When asked if Annan’s plan could still succeed, Fawzi told the AP: “His plan is viable — it’s up to the parties to implement it.”

Annan is scheduled to visit at least one refugee camp in Turkey’s Hatay province, bordering Syria, on Tuesday, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said.

On Wednesday, he then travels to Iran, a close Syrian ally, as part of his push to rally support for the cease-fire. The international community, which so far is unwilling to contemplate military intervention, has had little leverage over Syria.

Iran, Russia and China have been Assad’s strongest supporters. Annan already has traveled to Moscow and Beijing and got their backing for his peace plan.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said China wants an immediate end to violence and hopes the international community will give Annan more time to see the cease-fire agreement to fruition.

“We think the final resolution needs all sides to sit down and talk,” he said.

Despite the diplomatic push, violence has continued.

The Observatory and other activists said more than 125 people were killed since Sunday in the Syrian cities of Homs, Aleppo, Hama, Idlib and elsewhere. The reports could not be verified because Syria has banned most independent media coverage.

Also Monday, Human Rights Watch said it has documented the killings by Syrian forces of 85 civilians, including women and children, and the killings of at least 16 wounded or captured opposition fighters. The New York-based group said it only included cases corroborated by witnesses, but has received many more reports of similar incidents.

Associated Press writers Andrea Glioti and Mehmet Guzel in Kilis, Turkey, Selcan Hacaoglu and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Zeina Karam and Karin Laub in Beirut contributed to this report.

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