Assad forces bombard northern towns

Helicopter gunships bombard a strategic town in northern Syria during anti-government protests

Syrian flag. Picture: AFP

ANTAKYA - Helicopter gunships bombarded a strategic town in northern Syria overnight and tanks moved close to the commercial hub of Aleppo, rebels said, but kept well clear of new Turkish air defences installed to curb Syrian action near its frontiers.

Turkish commanders inspected the missile batteries deployed on the border region on Thursday following Syria's shooting down of a Turkish warplane a week ago, which has sharply raised tensions between the two nations.

The Turkish deployments, a graphic warning to President Bashar al-Assad, coincide with rising violence across Syria and increasingly urgent international efforts to forge a peace deal as the nation slips into full-blown war.

As the Turkish-Syrian dimension ratcheted up further pressure, peace envoy Kofi Annan said on Friday he was "optimistic" that crisis talks in Geneva on Saturday would produce an acceptable outcome, which has so far proved elusive.

However, diplomatic signals emerging later in the day were less than positive. Senior officials holding preparatory talks in Geneva on Friday failed to overcome differences on Annan's plan for a political transition. Western diplomats said Russia was pressing for changes to the text. Russian diplomats said the work continued but they would not "impose" a solution on Syria.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were to talk over dinner in St. Petersburg on Friday, a meeting that may determine whether the gathering in Geneva on Saturday can make any substantial progress.

Regional analysts said that while neither Turkey nor its NATO allies appeared to have any appetite to enforce a formal no-fly zone over Syrian territory, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan had made it clear Assad would be risking what he called the 'wrath' of Turkey if its aircraft strayed close to its borders.

Erdogan told a rally in the eastern city of Erzurum on Friday, broadcast by Turkish television: "We will not hesitate to teach a lesson to those who aim heavy weapons at their own people and at neighbouring countries."

Recently, there were clashes close to the border between Syrian forces and rebels. Last weekend, Damascus said "terrorists" infiltrating from Turkey were killed and there have been reports of Syrian forces shooting into camps for refugees in Turkey.

The United States, Britain and France have said that Assad is responsible for the violence, which the United Nations estimates has killed at least 10,000 people, and is no longer fit to govern. Russia and China, however, reject what they describe as Western calls for "regime change".

Turkey, sheltering some 34,000 Syrian refugees and providing bases for the rebel Free Syria Army (FSA), is in the forefront of the efforts to bring down Assad.

SYRIAN TANKS MASS

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 190 people, including 125 civilians, were killed on Thursday.

General Mustafa al-Sheikh, head of the Higher Military Council, a grouping of senior officers who defected from Assad's forces, said around 170 Syrian tanks had assembled at an infantry school near the village of Musalmieh northeast of the city of Aleppo, just 30 km (19 miles) from the Turkish border.

"They're either preparing to move to the border to counter the Turkish deployment or attack the rebellious (Syrian) towns and villages in and around the border zone north of Aleppo," Sheikh told Reuters by telephone from the border.

Omar Abdallah, an activist in Idlib coordinating with the Free Syrian Army said: "After taking hits in rural Aleppo and Idlib, the army is re-grouping ... There is speculation that these forces intend to ring Aleppo, starting July 1."

Rebel sources in Turkey's Hatay region said Assad's helicopters attacked Saraqeb, a strategic town deep in Idlib province, but kept away from the area directly along the Turkish border in the rural regions of Idlib and Aleppo provinces.

Neither Turkey, which fears a local clash escalating into a regional sectarian conflagration, nor Syria, has any interest in a confrontation on their shared border.

Ankara, which has the second biggest army in NATO, called an emergency NATO meeting after its warplane was shot down.

Turkey has in the past talked about creating a humanitarian corridor on Syrian territory if refugee flows became dangerously unmanageable or the scale of killing in Syria became intolerable. But it had always said this would require international endorsement.

"NATO just doesn't look like it's in the mood," David Hartwell, Middle East analyst at IHS Jane's, said. "What you might get is the Turks forcing a de facto no-fly zone."