Turkey considering "buffer zone" along Syria border

ANKARA Fri Mar 16, 2012 12:06pm GMT

1 of 5. Syrian refugees stroll at Reyhanli refugee camp in Hatay province on the Turkish-Syrian border March 15, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Jonathon Burch

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ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey is considering setting up a buffer zone inside Syria to tackle a growing flow of refugees fleeing the conflict there, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday.

Turkey is wary of military intervention in neighboring Syria, but has signaled a large flood of refugees entering its territory, or massacres by Syrian government troops, could force it to act. It has said that in any operation it would need some form of international agreement and involvement.

A buffer zone inside Syria would need to be secured. Without at least tacit Syrian government acceptance, that could bring Turkish forces, the second biggest in NATO, into confrontation with Syrian troops. Fighting has moved closer to the Turkish frontier, with a government assault in the Idlib region.

"On the subject of Syria, a buffer zone, a security zone, are things being studied," Erdogan told reporters, but said other ideas were also under consideration. "It would be wrong to look at it from only one perspective."

He said Turkey was considering recalling its ambassador from Damascus once Turkish citizens had returned from Syria, which the Turkish Foreign Ministry urged them to do at once.

Turkey says that there are currently 14,700 Syrian refugees living in camps on its territory. On Thursday it announced there had been a sharp increase in the flow, with some one thousand arriving within 24 hours, driven by fighting in nearby Idlib.

Memories are still vivid in Turkey of the flow of hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees into Turkey during the Gulf War in the early 1990s.

The prime minister said a planned April 2 "Friends of Syria" meeting in Istanbul of mostly Middle Eastern and Western countries which favor tougher action on Syria would come up with "very different results", but did not elaborate.

Chinese and Russian vetos have hampered Western and Arab-backed diplomatic action over Syria in the United Nations. Turkey is looking for closer co-operation with the Arab League, while pressing Russia to back efforts to halt President Bashar al-Assad's army crackdown.

(Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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