Turkish border crossing closed as Syrians flee

Turkey, already hosting more than 2 million Syrians from the conflict, is now preparing for a new influx of over 50,000 refugees

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Turkey's foreign minister said Saturday his country would keep its “open border policy” for refugees, but did not indicate when thousands of Syrians camped out near a closed frontier post could cross.

“We still keep this open border policy for these people fleeing from the aggression from the regime as well as air strikes of Russia,” Mevlut Cavusoglu said as he left a meeting with his EU counterparts in Amsterdam.

“We have received already 5,000 of them, another 50,000 to 55,000 are on their way and we cannot leave them there alone because air strikes are ongoing and also regime forces supported by Iran Shia militias are attacking these civilians as well.”

A senior government official says Turkey is caring for some 30-35,000 displaced Syrians on the Syrian side of the border but had no immediate plans to let them in.

Governor Suleyman Tapsiz of the border province of Kilis said Saturday Turkey had the ability to care for the Syrians inside Syria for the time being but had made preparations to allow them in in the event of an “extraordinary crisis.” He did not elaborate.

Earlier, Turkey appeared to be preparing for a new influx of refugees fleeing a major offensive by Syria’s Russian-backed regime, with tens of thousands of Syrians camped out near the border crossing.

The United Nations said some 20,000 people have gathered at the Bab al-Salam crossing, hoping to reach Turkey, which already hosts more than two million refugees from the bloody conflict.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights for its part estimated some 40,000 people had been forced to leave their homes since last Monday.

Turkish authorities were working to free up space within the existing camps along the Syrian border to accommodate the new arrivals.

Opposition forces and some 350,000 civilians were inside the rebel-held Aleppo city, which was targeted in the government offensive.

An AFP correspondent saw trucks carrying parts for tents Friday to the refugee camp close to the border gate on the Turkish side which faces the Bab al-Salam crossing on Syrian soil.

At least four Turkish aid trucks were also seen returning to Turkey after making deliveries of food to the Syrian side of the border.

Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) said in a statement that it had finalized preparations for a possible influx.

Turkey faced a similar experience in 2014 when 200,000 refugees fled the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane over three days as the ISIS and Syrian Kurdish fighters battled for control.

AFAD said a registration system that complies with international standards was set up to receive refugees, which includes a health scan, food and shelter.

The government offensive is targeting the Aleppo province, which was once a rebel stronghold, providing easy access to neighboring Turkey, a key opposition backer.

The city itself has been divided between rebel control in the east and government control in the west since mid-2012.

But government forces have steadily chipped away at rebel-held territory around the city and their advances this week leave the opposition there virtually surrounded.

The advance is the most significant outcome yet of the Russian intervention that began on September 30, ostensibly targeting the Islamic State group and other “terrorists.”

Analysts and activists say Russia’s strikes have always disproportionately targeted non-jihadist rebels in an attempt to bolster President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Russia Friday to implement a ceasefire in Syria, saying its bombing campaign was killing women and children in large numbers and “has to stop.”

Meanwhile, top EU officials on Saturday reminded Turkey of its international obligations to keep its frontiers open to refugees.
“The Geneva convention is still valid which states that you have to take in refugees,” EU Enlargement and Regional Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn said as he went into talks on the migrant crisis with EU foreign ministers and their counterparts from countries seeking EU membership, including Turkey.

An EU diplomatic source told AFP that the foreign ministers, meeting informally in Amsterdam, would take the opportunity to voice their concerns over the fate of the refugees fleeing the government offensive against rebel forces in Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a Syria donors conference in London on Thursday that Ankara would allow the latest group of refugees into the country.

More than a million migrants landed in the 28-nation European Union last year, most of them crossing into Greece from Turkey, and then making their way through the Balkans to Germany and other northern member states.

Such numbers have put huge strains on the bloc and the Schengen passport-free zone, with several countries - among them Germany, Austria, Hungary, Sweden - re-introducing border controls while Brussels struggles to find a comprehensive solution.

(With AFP and Reuters)

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