ANKARA Thousands of Syrians living in a refugee camp in southern Turkey will hold elections this month to select camp leaders and an administrative council in an exercise Turkey said was aimed at introducing democracy to Syrian citizens.
Turkey, which is sheltering tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing violence in their homeland, is an outspoken critic of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is battling rebels trying to overthrow his government.
Refugees aged 18 and over at the Kilis camp housing more than 13,000 Syrians on the Turkey-Syria border will be able to vote on January 17 for leaders of different sections of the camp and for an 18-member administrative council, the Turkish government said in a statement.
The elections are aimed at "introducing Syrian citizens to democracy and aim to provide the opportunity to gain experience in this field", it said.
A total of 42 candidates, who are required to be over the age of 30, will be able to launch election campaigns with bi-weekly speeches. They will be provided with flags, placards and technical support. Each of the six sections in the camp has to have at least one female candidate.
The election winners will help administer services relating to security, health, education and religion in coordination with the local governor's office.
Turkey has tried to showcase the Kilis camp, where refugees live in heated and air-conditioned containers with refrigeration facilities, as opposed to tents at other camps.
While Turkey has provided some of the best shelter and facilities for refugees among Syria's neighbours, overcrowding remains a concern and sporadic unrest has erupted at camps including Kilis. Turkish security forces have on occasion used tear gas to suppress the protests.
There are now more than 150,000 Syrians living in some 15 refugee camps in Turkey, according to the country's disaster management body (AFAD), and officials say there are tens of thousands more in towns and cities around the country.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who has likened Assad to dictators Hitler and Mussolini and accused him of creating a "terrorist state", has called on the Syrian leader to step down.
Assad has accused Erdogan of being "two-faced" by pursuing a sectarian agenda in the region and trying to persuade Damascus to introduce political reforms while ignoring the killings and democratic shortfalls in Gulf Arab states.
(Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Angus MacSwan)