ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey has closed its border gates with Syria to commercial traffic due to worsening security conditions but will keep them open for refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict, the Turkish customs minister and a UNHCR spokeswoman said on Wednesday.
Syrian rebels seized control of several gates on the Syrian side of the frontier over the last week in their 16-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and minister Hayati Yazici said the resulting insecurity prompted the move.
“Operations at our customs gates have been temporarily suspended,” Yazici told a news conference in the capital Ankara, but said the gates had not been totally closed. He did not say for how long commerce was being halted.
According to a ministry statement, Turks will no longer be able to cross through the border and only Syrians fleeing the violence or on personal business will be able to pass through.
“In order to protect our citizens from the potential dangers they would face in Syria...it was necessary to stop them crossing over, whether as passengers or for trade,” he said.
The ministry said “uncontrolled” forces had destroyed facilities on the Syrian side of the border and plundered trucks, leaving no authority or system in place.
Refugees from Syria, who have been fleeing into Turkey in their thousands, have until now mainly crossed the border through smuggling routes. There are currently more than 43,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Sybella Wilkes, spokeswoman of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told Reuters Ankara had assured them the border would remain open to refugee flows.
“We’ve received assurances that it is staying open. The border is closed for all commercial traffic in both directions, that is what we heard from the Turkish government,” she said.
About 300 Syrians had crossed overnight into Turkey, she added, some of them are using informal crossing points.
“The Turkish government is still actively welcoming refugees and offering them protection,” Wilkes said.
Travelling in Syria had become increasingly hazardous for truck drivers involved in trade between the two countries. They faced the constant risk of being targeted by combatants or caught in the crossfire between the two sides.
Wednesday’s move will close the only three border gates that were still open, at Cilvegozu, Oncupinar and Karkamis. There are three other border gates which are already effectively closed.
Tensions along the border increased after last month’s shooting down of a Turkish military jet by Syrian air defences.
Ankara, which previously had close ties with Damascus, subsequently increased its military presence, sending anti-aircraft missiles to the border and scrambling planes when Syrian aircraft came close to Turkish territory.
Turkey called for Assad to quit after he failed to heed calls for reform and the country has harboured Syrian rebels and tens of thousands of refugees along its border with Syria.
Turkish trade volume with Syria fell to $2.3 billion in 2011 from $2.8 billion a year earlier and amounted to just $302 billion in the first five months of this year.
Reporting by Ozge Ozbilgin in Ankara, Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by John Stonestreet