BEIRUT (AP) — Turkey sealed its border with Syria to trucks on Wednesday, cutting off a vital supply line to the embattled nation as fighting stretched into its fifth day in the commercial capital of Aleppo.
Turkish Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan said deteriorating security was behind the closure.
"We have serious concerns over the safety of Turkish trucks regarding their entry and return from Syria," Caglayan said, noting that there had already been a 87 percent drop in trucks traveling to Syria this year.
Turkey was an ally of neighboring Syria before the uprising against authoritarian President Bashar Assad began 16 months ago. But it has turned into a harsh critic and its territory along the of the 566-mile (911-kilometer) border is used as a staging ground for the rebel army as well as a haven for thousands of refugees fleeing violence that activists say has killed 19,000 people so far.
Northern Syria, especially the province of Idlib, has been a steady scene of heavy fighting between Syrian forces and the rebels and large swathes of the countryside are under rebel control. Rebels, for their part, generally move their weapons and material over the border through clandestine smuggler routes.
Caglayan told reporters Turkish trucks would not be allowed to into Syria, though no restrictions were being imposed on trucks going the other way. The sealing will deprive Syria of a common route for imports. Dozens of Turkish trucks were either looted or torched when the rebels captured the border crossing of Bab al-Hawa last week. Turkish truck drivers have also been caught in the cross fire or been the target of attacks during the civil war.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed confidence at rebel advances, saying that they were taking more and more territory.
"It will eventually result in a safe haven inside Syria, which will then provide a base for further actions by the opposition," she said Tuesday, urging the opposition to develop institutions and protect the rights of all Syrians.
The ability of the Libyan rebels to create a liberated area in the east of the country was key in their successful battle that ousted Moammar Gadhafi last year. However Syrian rebels' hold over territory is tenuous. They do not have any major urban areas under their control — and are not backed by NATO's air force the way the Libyans were.
The main battle in the country is currently just 40 miles (60 kilometers) from the Turkish border in the commercial hub of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, which was attacked on Saturday by an alliance of rebel forces. They infiltrated sympathetic neighborhoods in the north and south and then have been gradually moving toward the historic old city at the center, a U.N. world heritage site.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported more than two dozen people killed in fighting yesterday in Aleppo and large numbers of people fleeing the southern neighborhood of Sukkari Wednesday morning.
Activist video from Wednesday showed a burning police station in the southern neighborhood of al-Kelassa, while gunfire could be heard ringing out in the background. The Associated Press cannot independently confirm events portrayed in such videos posted online.
A major assault on Damascus last week was eventually crushed with attack helicopters and heavy weapons that devastated neighborhoods sympathetic to the rebels. Shelling was followed up with door to door searches that were still going on by Wednesday to flush out remaining rebel sympathizers.
Starting Tuesday, activists and local residents in Aleppo reported Syrian forces began using similar heavy weapons, including attack helicopters, to crush the rebel advance.
While government forces are stretched thin by fighting taking place across the country in cities like Homs, Hama, Deir el-Zour, Daraa and in Idlib province, they can defeat any single rebel assault by concentrating their forces. Aleppo and Damascus are the two largest cities and are key to the regime's survival.
There have been signs of fraying, however, in the elites of the regime. On Tuesday, a top military commander and close friend of Assad confirmed his defection. Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, son of a former defense minister, said in a video broadcast on Al-Arabiya TV that Syrians must work together to build a new country.
"Our duty today as Syrians is to unify for one goal, and that is to make our country free and democratic," he said.
It was his first public appearance since he left Syria earlier this month. French officials later confirmed that he was in France.
A new commander for the 300-member UN observer force, Lt. Gen. Babacar Gaye arrived late Tuesday in Damascus along with the U.N. official in charge of peacekeeping operations to hold a series of meetings to assess the prospects for a U.N. peace plan that is being widely ignored.
Fraser reported from Ankara.