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Syria Apologizes For Turkey Strike That Leaves 5 Dead

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Syria acknowledged today that it was responsible for yesterday's mortar attack on a Turkish town across the border. Five civilians were killed. Turkish officials say Syria also apologized to the United Nations and said that such an incident would not happen again. The apology comes after Turkey retaliated overnight and into this morning, firing on targets in northern Idlib Province.

The cross-border violence has intensified concern in Turkey that it might be dragged into the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Those concerns grew when lawmakers in Ankara today authorized troops to cross into Syria, if necessary.

NPR's Peter Kenyon is following the developments and joins us now from Istanbul. Hi there, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So tell us a little more. What do we know about how this apology came about from the Syrian regime?

KENYON: Well, once it became clear that the mortar had killed a number of Turkish women and children, there was no question that Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan would have to respond. And when that response continued well into today, it seems even Syria's allies began to press Damascus to do something to calm things down. The most public sign of that came from Russia, one of Syria's most important friends.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov publicly urged Syria to declare the deaths accidental and apologize. Within hours, Syria had done exactly that. And Russia, in turn, seems to be resuming its role of taking Syria's side at the U.N. Security Council, where diplomats say Moscow is trying to soften the language of the latest resolution condemning this attack.

So there are signs that no one wants to see this conflict widen into a regional fight. The problem, of course, is that as border tensions rise, there's more military forces on those borders, more equipment, and the greater the chance for cross-border casualties.

CORNISH: Now, Turkish forces have been gathering along the Syrian border since June, when Syria shot down a Turkish fighter jet after it briefly entered Syrian airspace. Now that Turkey has actually been attacked and retaliated, how are the Turks reacting?

KENYON: Well, there is an understandable feeling of national outrage at the civilian deaths. Funerals were being held today for two women, three children who died in the mortar attack. But there's also an uneasy feeling among many Turks that Erdogan may be leading them someplace that they don't really want to go.

So when Parliament today approved the use of Turkish troops across the border in Syria, if it's deemed necessary, some Turks were saying, well, just like the Turkish artillery: it was on the border, now it's been used, that could also happened with the troops. You have to remember, Turkey has had a very bad summer in its ongoing battle with Kurdish militants who want their own homeland. There're been heavy death tolls on both sides.

And the idea that a Turkish army could be pulled in to the Syria conflict on top of that is very troubling to a lot of people here. Now, there was an anti-war protest this evening in Istanbul and I expect more of that in the coming days.

CORNISH: And, Peter, the Turks have consistently said that they'll only act in Syria in concert with the international community, which is divided over what to do. So, if these border incidents continue, will Turkey keep waiting for consensus?

KENYON: Well, you know, it's interesting that with each incident, Turkey's response has grown a bit stronger. And one result has been a pullback of Syrian forces from the rural areas in the far north, closest to the border and the Turkish artillery. Now, that hasn't gone unnoticed by the rebels who use the area as kind of a de facto safe zone - safe being a very relative term, of course - to move people and plan attacks.

Now this, of course, has angered Damascus. They are complaining more and more about foreign meddling in their affairs. And it seems that it doesn't take much, meaning one mortar, to cause a big retaliation. And people are wondering, well, what if it's a little bigger next time? Is this going to spin out of control and will conflict become harder and harder to avoid?

CORNISH: NPR's Peter Kenyon, thank you, Peter.

KENYON: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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