ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey's military chief vowed Wednesday to respond with more force to any further shelling from Syria, keeping up the pressure on its southern neighbor a day after NATO said it stood ready to defend Turkey.
Gen. Necdet Ozel was inspecting troops who have been put on alert along the 910-kilometer (566-mile) border with Syria after a week of cross-border artillery and mortar exchanges escalated tensions between the neighbors, sparking fears of a wider regional conflict. Turkey has reinforced the border with artillery guns and also deployed more fighter jets to an air base close to the border region since shelling from Syria killed five Turkish civilians last week.
"We responded and if (the shelling) continues, we will respond with more force," the private Dogan news agency quoted Ozel as saying during a visit to the town of Akcakale, where he offered condolences to a man who lost his wife and three daughters to a Syrian shell.By
On Tuesday, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance was ready to defend Turkey, its strongest show of support to its ally since the firing began.
The solidarity, however, is largely symbolic. NATO member Turkey has sought backing in case it is attacked, but despite publicly supporting Syria's rebels Ankara isn't seeking direct intervention. And the alliance is thought to be reluctant to get involved militarily at a time when its main priority is the war in Afghanistan.
On Wednesday schools in Akcakale reopened despite the tense situation. They had been closed due to security concerns.
Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency reported fighting between Syrian rebels and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime around the Syrian town of Azmarin, in Idlib province, across from the Turkish border. It said Syrians were fleeing homes in Azmarin, some crossing into Turkey on rowing boats over the river Orontes, that runs along the border.
Private NTV television reported that explosions and automatic weapon fire could be heard in Turkey's Hatay province, coming from the Azmarin region. It said rebels were clashing with some 500 Syrian government soldiers, and that at least 100 rebels had been injured, some of whom had been brought to Turkey for treatment.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been fiercely critical of Syrian President Bashar Assad, said Wednesday that Syria was "the bleeding heart of humanity and the whole Islamic world."
Erdogan told a meeting of the Islamic Conference in Istanbul that Turkey had refrained from responding to half a dozen shells from Syria, but when five people were killed last week "we had to retaliate in the strongest way that we could."
Frank Jordans in Istanbul contributed to this report.