Turkey returns fire after Syrian shelling

Associated Press
Syrians carry a rebel injured during fighting with the Syrian army in the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, to the Turkish city of Akcakale on the Turkey-Syria border Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Turkey's state-run news agency says Turkish troops have returned fire after a mortar shell from Syria again landed on its territory. Turkish artillery has fired at Syrian targets for two straight days after shelling from Syria killed five civilians in Turkey.  (AP Photo)

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ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Another mortar shell from Syria struck Turkish territory on Saturday, prompting a fourth straight day of retaliatory artillery fire, and reviving fears that the crisis in Syria could spiral into a regional conflict.

The latest shelling comes a day after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Syria not to test Turkey's "limits and determination" and insisted that his country "was not bluffing" with its warnings.

The mortar landed in a rural area near the village of Guvecci, early on Saturday morning just minutes after intense fighting broke out across the border in Syria's Idlib province, between Syrian rebels and the forces of President Bashar Assad's regime, the private Dogan news agency reported.

No one was hurt by the mortar, which landed some 50 meters (yards) inside Turkish soil and some 700 meters (yards) away from the village, said a statement from the office of the governor for Turkey's border province of Hatay. An army unit based near Guvecci promptly responded, firing four 81-mm mortars, it said.

The governor's office indicated that the Syrian mortar had landed in Turkey accidentally, saying it was believed "to be have been fired by the forces of the Syrian Arab Republic at Syrian rebel groups on the Syrian side of the border."

Villagers rushed out of homes and gathered at a safer point in the village, away from the border area, Dogan reported.

The latest tensions with Syria began Wednesday when a Syrian shell hit a home at a Turkish border town, killing two women and three children and sparked unprecedented artillery strikes by Turkey.

Turkey's parliament on Thursday also voted to allow cross border military operations in Syria, further raising tensions between the neighbors that were once close allies.

On Friday, the U.S. sided with Turkey, condemning what White House spokesman Josh Earnest called the "aggressive actions of the Syrians." Earnest said Turkey's response was appropriate and that the U.S. stands by Turkey, a NATO ally.

Saturday's shelling came as both sides appeared to be trying to defuse the situation. A Turkish Foreign Ministry official said Friday that Syria has pulled tanks and other military equipment away from the border.

Turkey, along with other countries siding with the rebels, is averse to intervening militarily, while Assad has also tried to avoid provocations he believes would trigger a foreign intervention.

Syria's 18-month-old conflict began with a peaceful uprising against Assad, inspired by last year's Arab Spring rebellions against authoritarian rulers. Amid an escalating regime crackdown, the rebellion gradually turned into a civil war. The regime's troops are stretched thin, enabling rebels to control large stretches of countryside in Syria's most densely populated west.

But neither side has been able to deliver a decisive blow, even though the Syrian military has superior weapons, including combat aircraft.

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