ANKARA - Some 8,000 Syrian refugees fled to Turkey overnight in the face of escalating clashes between rebel forces and troops loyal to Damascus near the border, a foreign ministry official told AFP on Friday.
The latest influx brought the total number of Syrian refugees in Turkey to more than 120,000, the official added on condition of anonymity.
“Five thousand Syrians were taken to a camp in Akcakale town near the Syrian border and the others were to stay with their relatives in Turkey,” he said.
On Friday, dozens of army officers including two generals and 11 colonels also fled to Turkey to join opposition fighters, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported.
Army defectors, flanked by their families, were taken to the Apaydin camp in Hatay province near the Syrian border where security is tighter.
Turkish officials refuse to give an exact number of Syrian generals currently on Turkish soil as some are returning to Syria to join the active fighters inside the conflict-wracked country.
The government said over 110,000 Syrian refugees live in several camps along its volatile border, as well as the exiled Syrian opposition’s political and military leadership, while many more are living in apartments or hotels throughout the country.
It was not immediately clear if the army defectors were among the 8,000 refugees who crossed into Turkey overnight.
The latest exodus was sparked by fierce clashes near the northeastern Syrian border town of Ras al-Ain, where at least 16 Syrian soldiers and 10 rebels were killed on Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Rebel Free Syrian Army battalions stormed the majority Kurdish town after launching a two-pronged attack from across the border and the nearby Syrian village of Tal Half, the watchdog said.
Turkish media reported that the sound of gunfire was heard overnight in the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, which lies across from Ras al-Ain.
Six Turks in the town were lightly wounded by ricocheting bullets from the Syrian side on Thursday, the Turkish official said. Local authorities warned residents to stay away from the border area while schools in the town will be closed for two days. Turkish military vehicles and forces moved to the border areas amid the ongoing clashes, according to local media reports.
Turkey has been strengthening its defences along the border since five of its nationals were killed by Syrian shells on October 3, inflaming tensions between Ankara and Damascus.
Since then, Turkish army has responded in kind to every shell falling on its territory from Syria.
Turkey fell out with its one-time ally after the regime’s unleashed a deadly crackdown on protests in March last year, and has joined in Arab and Western calls for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad.
Meanwhile, Israel’s deputy prime minister Moshe Yaalon warned Damascus on Friday it would act to defend its sovereignty if the bloody fighting in Syria continued to spill over into the occupied Golan Heights.
His remarks, published on his official Twitter account, were made a day after three stray mortar rounds fired from Syria hit the occupied Golan, which Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in 1981 in a move never recognised by the international community.
“We see the Syrian regime as responsible for what is happening along the border,” said Yaalon, a senior cabinet minister and former armed forces chief of staff. “The current situation in Syria could carry on for an extended and bloody period. If we see that it spills over in our direction, we know how to defend the citizens and the sovereignty of the State of Israel,” said the minister, who holds the strategic affairs portfolio.
“The other side has received a lot of messages recently and until now, has acted accordingly in Syria. I hope that in this incident too, there will be someone who takes this in hand.”
The three mortar rounds which struck the Golan on Thursday were the latest in a string of incidents in which fire has spilled across the ceasefire line onto the Israeli side.
“They are apparently shells fired in error during fighting between different forces inside Syria,” an army spokeswoman told AFP.
On Monday, an Israeli military vehicle patrolling the buffer zone was hit by gunfire, with the army acknowledging it was caused by “stray bullets.”
No one was injured but the incident prompted an Israeli complaint to the United Nations Security Council in which it described the gunfire as a “grave violation” of a 1974 agreement on security in the buffer zone.
“This represents a dangerous escalation that could have far-reaching implications for the security and stability of our region,” said Israel’s UN ambassador Ron Prosor.
“Israel has shown maximum restraint. However, Israel views the continued violations of the Separation of Forces agreement by the Syrian military forces with the utmost concern,” he said in a letter to the Security Council.
On Sunday, chief of staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz warned that Israel could become involved in the Syrian conflict.
“This is a Syrian affair that could turn into our affair,” he said on a visit to the sector, without elaborating.
Chief military spokesman Yoav Mordechai, who accompanied Gantz, warned that Israeli troops in the area were “ready at any moment for the fire to change direction and turn on us.”
A day earlier, three Syrian tanks entered Bir Ajam village, five kilometres (three miles) southeast of Quneitra, in the demilitarised zone, sparking another Israeli complaint to the UN.
Since Israel and Syria signed the 1974 disengagement agreement, a 1,200-strong unarmed UN force has patrolled the buffer zone.