AMMAN/BEIRUT: A car bomb exploded on the Syrian side of the main Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey Tuesday, killing at least seven people and wounding 20, the Turkish news agency Dogan said.
The explosion occurred at a roadblock manned by hard-line Islamist fighters at the entrance of the rebel-held crossing, several hundred meters from the Turkish side, activists said.
The wounded were rushed to Turkish hospitals. Dogan reported seven people killed but the Turkish Foreign Ministry said it had no information yet.
Pictures taken by activists at the scene showed several burnt and mangled cars and an engine block that apparently flew to the side of the road from the vehicle.
“The casualties are all civilians, from the people queuing to cross,” activist Omar Aref said.
No specific group was blamed for the attack. Suspects will include forces loyal to Assad, although tensions have been rising between hard-line Islamist groups linked to Al-Qaeda and more moderate rebel forces, leading to sporadic clashes and killings.
The explosion in Bab al-Hawa took place a day after Turkish forces shot down a Syrian helicopter that had entered Turkey’s airspace. The Syrian army accused the Turkish government, which backs the uprising against Assad, of trying to escalate tensions.
In a statement issued Tuesday, the Syrian military said the helicopter was on a mission to monitor for cross-border infiltration of rebels when it “mistakenly” entered Turkish airspace.
Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told reporters in Ankara Monday that the Syrian helicopter was shot down by a fighter jet after it entered Turkish airspace and ignored repeated warnings to leave.
He said the helicopter strayed 2 kilometers inside Turkey but crashed inside Syria after being hit by missiles fired from the jet.
Arinc said he did not have any information on the fate of the Syrian pilots, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebel fighters captured one of the two crew members, while the fate of the other one was unclear.
The Syrian military said the helicopter entered Turkish space “for a short distance” by mistake.
“The hasty reaction from the Turkish side, particularly that the helicopter was heading back and was not on a fighting mission, reveals the real intentions” of Ankara to ramp up tensions, it said.
Turkey has been at odds with the Syrian government since early in the country’s civil war and has backed the rebels, while advocating international intervention in the conflict.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, speaking in Paris after meetings about Syria with his counterparts from other countries, said Monday’s incident should send a message. “Nobody will dare to violate Turkey’s borders in any way again,” he said, according to Anatolia, the Turkish state-run news agency. “The necessary measures have been taken.”
More than 100,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad broke out in March 2011. Violence has often spilled over into neighboring Turkey and Lebanon, and sometimes into Jordan and Israel.
Syria’s state news channel said government forces seized control of Shebaa, a suburb next to the Damascus airport road, Tuesday. Rebels denied the reports and said the battle was still going on.
Rebels near the capital say that Assad’s forces appear to be emboldened after the U.S. backed away from threats to take military action against the regime in response to a chemical weapons strike on Damascus suburbs that killed hundreds of people.
Over the weekend, Washington and Moscow agreed a deal to remove chemical weapons from Syria but government airstrikes resumed.
Video from Lebanon’s news channel Al-Manar showed soldiers touring empty tunnels in Shebaa dug by rebels, who used them to transport men and arms while under air and artillery strikes.
Rebels in Damascus say they are regrouping and making new plans now that a foreign strike appears unlikely.
“The fighters are having ‘operations room’ meetings to try and plan new battles. They will be launched from several points,” said a fighter from the Islam Brigade in Damascus.
“It will be a big new offensive but this will still need some time,” he said.
Of Syria’s southern border, the U.N.’s Mideast envoy said Tuesday clashes between the army and rebels on the Golan Heights risk drawing Israel into the civil war.
Robert Serry told the Security Council the fighting could “jeopardize the cease-fire” between Israel and Syria that has been in place since 1974, monitored by U.N peacekeepers.
Serry said that during “heavy clashes” Thursday between Syrian troops and the opposition, five artillery shells and one tank shell landed on the Israeli-occupied side of the truce line. Serry said the Israelis did not retaliate.