BEIRUT: Turkey fired artillery at Syrian territory Wednesday after a mortar bomb launched from Syria killed five Turkish civilians, ratcheting up fears of a regional spillover of the 18-month conflict.
Turkey responded after what it called “the last straw” when a mortar bomb hit a residential neighborhood of the border town of Akcakale.
Violence inside Syria also intensified with three suicide car bombs and a mortar barrage ripping through a government-controlled district of central Aleppo housing a military officers’ club, killing 48 people, according to activists. A jihadist group, Al-Nusra Front, claimed responsibility for the attacks.
“Our armed forces in the border region responded immediately to this abominable attack in line with their rules of engagement; targets were struck through artillery fire against places in Syria identified by radar,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office said of the attacks on Akcakale.
Turkey’s NTV television said Turkish radar pinpointed the positions from where the mortar bombs were fired on Akcakale, and those positions were hit.
Residents of Akcakale gathered outside the local mayor’s office at the sound of fire, afraid to return to their homes as the dull thud of distant artillery fire rumbled across the town, AFP reported.
“Turkey will never leave unanswered such kinds of provocation by the Syrian regime against our national security,” Erdogan said.
There were no immediate details of the Turkish strikes against Syria, nor was it clear who had fired the mortar into Turkish territory.
But Syria’s information minister said Damascus is looking into the origin of the deadly cross-border shelling.
“The concerned parties are currently studying the origin of the fire against Turkey,” Omran Zoabi said in a statement reported by state television.
“Syria offers it sincere condolences to the families of the victims and to our friends the Turkish people,” he added.
However, he reiterated Damascus’ call that its neighbors respect its borders and stop “terrorists” from infiltrating Syria.
The White House issued a statement late Wednesday condemning Syria’s shelling of Turkey, saying “we stand with our Turkish ally.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington would discuss with Ankara what the next steps should be, calling the spread of violence a “very, very dangerous situation.”
“This is yet another example of the depraved behavior of the Syrian regime, and why it must go. We regret the loss of life in Turkey, a strong ally,” Pentagon spokesman George Little added.
NATO in an emergency meeting backed Turkey and called on Syria to respect international law.
“The Alliance continues to stand by Turkey and demands the immediate cessation of such aggressive acts against an Ally and urges the Syrian regime to end flagrant violations of international law,” a statement said after the meeting.
The shelling “constitutes a cause of greatest concern for, and is strongly condemned by, all allies,” NATO ambassadors said in a statement, after they held a rare late-night meeting at Turkey’s request to discuss the incident.
Turkey’s military response to the shelling contrasted with its relative restraint when Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet in June.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said after the mortar attack: “This latest incident is the last straw. Turkey is a sovereign country. Its own soil has been attacked.”
“There must be a response to this under international law,” he said, according to the Cihan news agency.
As NATO said it would stand by Turkey, violence killed at least 112 people across Syria, according to the Local Coordination Committees.
In Aleppo, two car bombs went off in quick succession around Saadallah al-Jabiri Square near a military officers’ club, ripping off part of a hotel’s facade and flattening a two-story cafe, an AFP correspondent reported.
A man, whose family owns a coffee shop overlooking the square, described the sound of the blasts as “terrifying.”
“I ran to my parents’ room and found their faces covered in blood,” said the man, who identified himself only as Omar. “Most of the people rescued from under the rubble of the hotel were soldiers.”
A third bomb exploded soon afterward at an entrance to the Old City in the nearby district of Bab Jnein, the Observatory and a military official said.
At least 48 people were killed and almost 100 wounded, the Britain-based Observatory said, citing medics. “Most of them were regime troops,” it added.
A jihadist group claimed responsibility the attacks, U.S. monitors SITE Intelligence Group reported.
The Al-Nusra Front said in a posting on jihadist Internet forums that it struck four targets being used by regime forces – a military officers’ club, the municipal palace, the Al-Amir Hotel and another hotel, SITE reported.
“These operations were met with much joy from Muslims, especially the operation blowing up the municipal palace where people started invoking Allah,” SITE quoted the statement as saying.
“We heard two enormous explosions, as though the gates of hell were opening,” Hassan, a 30-year-old employee of a nearby hotel, said of the Bab Jnein blast.
“I saw thick smoke, and I helped a woman on the pavement whose arms and legs were completely dislocated,” said Hassan, who gave only one name.
The owner of a shop a block away from the officers’ club said: “I pulled out from the rubble a child less than 10 years old who has lost a leg.”
Rebels also attacked a political intelligence branch in Aleppo as well as an old vegetable market where a large number of troops were posted, said the Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground.
Overnight, rebels also destroyed two tanks.
“The rebels are now attacking regime troops in the heart of the city,” Observatory director Abdel Rahman told AFP. “Before, the center was spared from violence. Now, we can say that barring some districts, Aleppo is no longer a safe city.
“This is part of the decisive battle, and the regime can no longer claim to control the city,” he added.
Aleppo, with a population of 1.7 million people, has been one of the focal points of the conflict since mid-July, when the army promised the “mother of all battles” to clear the city of rebels.
Since Thursday, the fighting has become more intense, spreading at the weekend into the centuries-old, UNESCO-listed souk in the histoc heart of the city and sparking a fire that damaged hundreds of shops.
Bombings have increasingly become part of the unrest ravaging Syria, which began in March 2011 as peaceful protests for reform but has since escalated into an armed insurgency, with more than 31,000 people killed, according to activists.
Regime forces have since pushed the rebels to the outskirts of the capital, but they have lost control of several border crossings and are battling to retake Aleppo.
Iin the northwestern province of Idlib, rebels killed at least 15 troops when they attacked and destroyed three army posts in the village of Bdama, near Jisr al-Shughour, Abdel Rahman said.
“Intense clashes broke out afterward,” he said, adding fighting also broke out elsewhere in the province, a stronghold of the rebel Free Syrian Army on the border with Turkey.
The U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, is due back in the region this week to try to revive talks aimed at ending the bloodshed, officials said.
Jan Eliasson, deputy to the U.N. chief, said he did not know if Brahimi would be able to enter Syria, but hoped to persuade the Assad regime to “go in the direction of a reduction of violence.” – With Agencies