|Syrian refugees watch the border from a refugee camp at Kilis in Turkey on Monday. (AFP)
Antakya, Turkey, April 9 (Reuters): Syria’s conflict spilled over into Turkey today and government forces battled rebel fighters near the border in clashes that appeared to doom a ceasefire less than 24 hours before a UN-brokered deadline for a Syrian army pullback.
Under a deal brokered by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, Syria is to begin withdrawing troops from around urban centres by Tuesday, paving the way for a truce to start 48 hours later.
But the prospect of a ceasefire looked increasingly dim, with no let-up in violence around the country where forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have battled to crush a popular revolt against his rule for more than a year.
In a last-minute move, Assad has demanded written guarantees from Opposition fighters that they put down their weapons, prompting Turkey’s deputy foreign minister Naci Koru to say that the April 10 deadline was now effectively void.
“April 10 has become void. After Kofi Annan’s visit tomorrow (to Turkey) a new stage will start,” state-run broadcaster TRT quoted Koru as saying on its website.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said through a spokesman that “adding new conditions at this stage is totally unacceptable”.
Less that 24 hours before the deadline, fierce fighting raged on the ground, with two Syrian refugees and a Turkish translator wounded by gunfire from Syria at a refugee camp on Turkish territory, according to Turkish officials.
It was not clear if the camp was deliberately targeted or hit by stray bullets.
In clashes inside Syria near the Turkish border, rebels killed at least six members of the Syrian security forces and customs officials, according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
It said the fighting took place in the village of Salama, between the Syrian town of Azaz and the Turkish town of Kilis. Eight rebel gunmen were wounded in the fighting.
The state news agency Sana said nine law-enforcement members and a civilian were shot dead and 13 wounded in al-Sukkari region in Aleppo.
State forces had gone “to protect a protest gathering after several attacks on such gatherings” were wrongly blamed on army and police, Sana said. They were shot down from all sides. The agency said security forces on Sunday foiled infiltration attempts of two armed groups from Lebanon.
In Damascus province, four soldiers were killed in the bombing of a convoy as Syrian forces swept villages arresting opposition suspects. Two policemen were killed in clashes with gunmen in the city of Aleppo, the British-based Observatory said.
Qassem Saad al-Deen, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army in Syria, said on Sunday that at least 1,000 people had been killed during the past week, most of them civilians.
Western powers suspect Assad is using the time since he met Annan in Damascus a month ago to mount a military offensive aimed at clearing the country of rebel strongholds.
Since the outbreak of the uprising in March 2011, Syria has blamed the unrest on foreign-backed terrorists determined to use violence to destabilise the government. Assad, who has ruled for 10 years since succeeding his late father, Hafez al-Assad, has laid out his own reform programme but it has been dismissed by the Opposition.
The severity of Assad’s crackdown, in which the UN says 9,000 people have been killed, has triggered western condemnation and sanctions, as the Syrian economy ground to a halt and its pound halved in value.
Under the UN plan, the Syrian government and Opposition must stop fighting at 6am (0300 GMT) on April 12, if Damascus meets its deadline 48 hours earlier to pull back troops from cities and cease using heavy weapons.
Russia and China — who have so far sided with Assad —urged both sides to stop fighting and give Annan’s peace plan a chance to work.