Turkish bus attacked in Syria; Russia accuses West of provocation as pressure mounts

Demonstrators against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad take part in a march after Friday prayers in Kafranbel near Adlb. (Reuters)

Two Turkish citizens were wounded when gunmen opened fire on a convoy of Turkish buses carrying pilgrims in northern Syria, Turkish media reported on Monday, as Britain said the international community would do as much as it could to turn up the pressure on Syria and Russia accused the West of provocation.

Turkish NTV news channel said the driver of one of the three buses and a pilgrim were wounded in the attack at a checkpoint just across the Syrian border. Private news agency Dogan showed images of a passenger bus with one of its side windows broken at the Cizre border crossing inside Turkey.

Passengers on the bus said they had been told to disembark at a checkpoint by up to eight uniformed Syrian soldiers. One passenger said the soldiers started firing randomly at the pilgrims as they ran away.

Non-Arab Turkey, once an ally of Assad, is also taking an increasingly tough attitude to Damascus.

Turkish newspapers said on Saturday Ankara had contingency plans to create no-fly or buffer zones to protect civilians in neighboring Syria if the bloodshed worsens, according to Reuters.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul said there was “no place for authoritarian regimes” in the Mediterranean region.

“As someone who has studied in the United Kingdom, lived in the United Kingdom, has this world view, President Assad should be able to understand this,” Gul told Britain’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper.

Increasing pressure on Syria

Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Monday the international community would do as much as it could to turn up the pressure on Syria after President Bashar al-Assad said he would not bow to pressure to crack down on protesters.

“We will increase the pressure on the Assad regime. I discussed this with the Secretary of the Arab League yesterday and I believe they will wish to do so at their further meeting tomorrow,” he told BBC Radio in an interview.

“The behavior of that regime is appalling and unacceptable and of course we will do what we can to support democracy in Syria in the future.”

Russia, meanwhile, accused the West of provocative behavior in the Syrian crisis, saying Western countries were telling the opposition to forget dialogue with President Assad.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the West's behavior in this respect was “similar to a political provocation at an international level,” the RIA Novosti and Interfax news agencies reported.

He complained that while the Arab League had called for a halt to violence in Syria, Western capitals had been telling the opposition to refrain from dialogue with Assad.

Russia, one of few powers still offering support to Assad, has repeatedly called on the West for a more balanced approach in the crisis saying violence by both the authorities and the opposition should be condemned.

Violent crackdown continues

At least four people were killed on Monday as Syrian security forces carried out raids in and around the flashpoint central city of Homs, rights and activist groups reported.

“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 Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The military also raided the towns of Karnaz, Latalmleh and Kafar Nabude in the central province of Hama, the Britain-based Observatory said in a statement received in Nicosia.

Dozens of military vehicles carried troops into northern Idlib province, where heavy machinegun fire was heard in the village of Ehseen and telephone lines were cut, it added.

The Local Coordination Committees said that as many as five people, including a Saudi national, were killed in Homs after 20 armored vehicles entered the neighborhood of al-Bayada.

Eight people were wounded by “random gunfire” and rocket-propelled grenades fired at a building, the LCC said in a separate statement received by AFP.

The LCC, an opposition umbrella group that organizes activists on the ground, said that a similar security operation was conducted in the city of Hama, farther to the north.

The latest bloodshed came after Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem on Sunday brushed off the threat of a civil war and looming Arab League sanctions.

At least 24 more people were reported to have been killed at the weekend, adding to the U.N. figure of the more than 3,500 deaths since mid-March in the Syrian crackdown on protests.

The commander of a group of Syrian army defectors has denied earlier claims that his followers attacked the headquarters of Syria’s ruling Baath party in the capital Damascus.

Riad al-Asaad, a Turkey-based air force colonel who heads the Free Syrian Army, says in a video posted online that the attack was “fabricated” by President Bashar Assad’s regime to harm the image of the “revolution.”

Al-Asaad’s statement late Sunday came hours after his group claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement posted on its Facebook page. It was not clear why the FSA retracted its claim.

Al-Asaad said his group does not attack civilian targets.

Activists said rocket-propelled grenades struck the Baath party headquarters early Sunday.

Muallem also dismissed as “totally unfounded” reports that the offices of the ruling Baath party in Damascus had been hit by several rocket-propelled grenades early on Sunday.

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