Turkey strikes back at Syria

Turkey launched an assault on Syria after a Syrian mortar bomb killed five Turkish civilians.

Smoke rises from the explosions of several Syrian shells that crashed inside Akcakale town in Sanliurfa, Turkey, killing at least five people on 3 October 2012. AFP/Rauf

AKCAKALE - Turkish artillery hit targets inside Syria on Wednesday after a mortar bomb fired from Syrian territory killed five Turkish civilians, while NATO called for an immediate end to Syria's "aggressive acts".

In the most serious cross-border escalation of the 18-month uprising in Syria, Turkey hit back at what it called "the last straw" when a mortar hit a residential neighbourhood of the southern border town of Akcakale.

NATO said it stood by member-nation Turkey and urged Syria to put an end to "flagrant violations of international law".

The US-led Western military alliance held an urgent late-night meeting in Brussels to discuss the matter and later on Wednesday in New York, Turkey asked the UN Security Council to take the "necessary action" to stop Syrian aggression.

In a letter to the president of the 15-nation Security Council, Turkish UN Ambassador Ertugrul Apakan called the firing of the mortar bomb "a flagrant violation of international law as well as a breach of international peace and security.

UN diplomats said Security Council members hoped it would issue a non-binding statement on Thursday that would condemn the mortar attack "in the strongest terms" and demand an end to violations of Turkey's territorial sovereignty.

Members had hoped to issue the statement on Wednesday, but Russia - a staunch ally of Syria's, which along with China has vetoed three UN resolutions condemning President Bashar al-Assad's government - asked for a delay, diplomats 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 security sources said Turkey was increasing the number of troops along its border.

"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 Tayyip Erdogan's office said in a statement.

"Turkey will never leave unanswered such kinds of provocation by the Syrian regime against our national security."

Syria said it was investigating the source of the mortar bomb and urged restraint. Information Minister Omran Zoabi conveyed his condolences to the Turkish people, saying his country respected the sovereignty of neighbouring countries.

Turkey's parliament was due to vote on Thursday on extending a five-year-old authorisation for its military to carry out cross-border operations, an agreement originally intended to allow strikes on Kurdish militant bases in northern Iraq.

That vote would now be extended to include operations in Syria, a ruling party deputy told Turkish television.

Residents of Akcakale gathered outside the local mayor's office, afraid to return to their homes as the dull thud of distant artillery fire rumbled across the town.

"We haven't been able to sleep in our own homes for 15 days, we had to sleep in our relatives' houses further away from the border because it's not safe down there," said shopkeeper Hadi Celik, 42, a father of five who was among the crowd outside the mayor's office.

Washington sees Turkey as a pivotal player in backing Syria's opposition and planning for the post-Assad era. The White House said on Wednesday it stood by "our Turkish ally". But Ankara has found itself increasingly isolated and frustrated by a lack of international consensus on how to end the conflict.

Erdogan long cultivated good relations with Assad, but became a harsh critic after Syria's popular revolt began last year, accusing him of creating a "terrorist state". Erdogan has allowed Syrian rebels to organise on Turkish soil and pushed for a foreign-protected safe zone inside Syria.

On Monday, Syria's foreign minister accused Turkey, the United States, France, Saudi Arabia and Qatar of arming and funding rebels intent on toppling Assad, a charge Ankara has repeatedly denied.