World

Turkey on edge as Syria widens offensive

Syria's military will "crush" armed rebels, President Bashar Assad's defence minister warned Saturday, as the widened its offensive.

Border tensions rise over errant Syrian shells

Turkish soldiers guard on Friday at the Turkish-Syrian border near the Akcakale border crossing in southern Sanliurfa province, on Friday. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)

Syria's military will "crush" armed rebels, President Bashar Assad's defence minister warned Saturday, as the regime shelled rebel positions in two cities and near the Lebanese border in a widening offensive.

In another development, neighbouring Turkey set new rules of engagement after three Syrian shells hit Turkish territory Saturday. Turkey retaliated with artillery, as it has for the past four days, and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said this would now be Turkey's standard response.

Davutoglu insisted that "we haven't taken a step toward war," but Turkey's threat to fire back for each errant Syrian shell was bound to keep border tensions high. Turkey is one of Assad's harshest critics and a key supporter of Syria's opposition.

The latest Syria-Turkey crisis erupted earlier this week, after a Syrian shell killed five civilians in a Turkish border town.

The Syrian regime has apologized and tried to defuse tensions by pulling some tanks back from the border, according to a Turkish Foreign Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations.

Still, the week's daily cross-border exchanges have heightened fears of a regional conflagration.

Syrian mortar rounds are likely to hit Turkey again as regime forces try to retake rebel-controlled areas near the border. Two of the shells that fell in Turkey on Saturday were fired in clashes between government troops and opposition fighters in a Syrian border village.

Assad regime says it's winning

Syria's civil war has been stalemated for months, but Syrian Defence Minister Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij insisted Saturday the regime is gaining the upper hand.

The government denies it is facing a home-grown rebellion, saying it is being targeted by a foreign conspiracy against the regime's support for anti-Israeli groups.

"The most dangerous parts of the conspiracy have … passed and the killing is on its way to decline," said al-Freij, who was named to the job after his predecessor was assassinated in July. He offered amnesty to rebels who repent but said those who don't "will be crushed under the feet of our soldiers."

Assad made a rare public appearance Saturday to commemorate the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, also known as the October War.

The Syrian president laid a wreath at the country's statue of the Unknown Soldier in Damascus, then passed along a line of saluting army commanders in dress uniform, shaking hands with each. The ceremony, broadcast live on Syrian TV, seemed designed to show Assad remains in control.

Syria's state-run news agency SANA linked Saturday's anniversary to the current conflict, saying that in both cases "Syria is facing an enemy armed with Western and Israeli weapons." 

Along with regime's new warnings to the rebels, Syrian troops backed by warplanes and combat helicopters launched attacks Saturday on rebel-held areas near the Syrian town of Quseir, close to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, Lebanese security officials said. 

Homs, Aleppo bearing brunt of attack

Opposition activists also reported intense government shelling in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest and a commercial hub, and in the central city of Homs. The battlefield stalemate is most apparent in those two cities.

Syrian forces have been bombing and shelling from a distance but have been unable to dislodge opposition fighters holed up in devastated neighbourhoods. Retaking Aleppo and Homs could give the regime some breathing room.

In Aleppo, government forces gained some ground in recent house-to-house combat, according to an Associated Press journalist in the city. 

On Saturday, government troops captured the city's Sakhour roundabout after days of heavy fighting, a Syrian official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Heavy shelling also was reported in Taibeh, a town near Homs, an early centre of the uprising. Opposition activists said at least 10 people had been killed and dozens wounded. 

Amateur video from Taibeh, posted Saturday, showed several badly disfigured bodies being pulled from the back of a pickup truck by distraught bystanders. One body was carried away on a red stretcher. 

In another video, masked rebel fighters posed with assault rifles in what they said is an air defence base east of Damascus they captured earlier in the week.

The video showed captured weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles, heavy machine guns and large-caliber ammunition. The rebels surrounded a group of captured regime soldiers. The captives, some with bandages on their heads, each stood up and gave their rank and name.

The authenticity of such videos cannot be confirmed independently because Syria imposes tight restrictions on foreign journalists.

Rebels take control of border village

In a success for the opposition activists said, rebel fighters took control of the village of Khirbet el-Jouz in Syria's northwestern Idlib province, about 16 kilometres from the Turkish town of Guvecci.

Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency said rebels planted their flag on the roof of a building that had been used as a base by regime troops in the village. The takeover came after intense clashes, with mortar shells exploding at a relentless pace, some near the Turkish border, Anadolu said.

Two of the mortars from that battle landed in Turkey, and a third shell hit later in another village in Turkey's Hatay province. No casualties were reported, but Turkish forces returned fire each time, according to Anadolu and the Hatay governor's office.

Earlier this week, Turkey's parliament approved such retaliation, expanding Turkey's response options. Turkey's leaders have reiterated that they don't want war with Syria, but another dramatic or deadly border incident could force unwanted escalation.