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Turkey raises buffer zone option as more Syrians flee

By Jonathon Burch

REYHANLI, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkey said on Thursday it might consider backing a 'buffer zone' inside Syria to cope with a flow of refugees across its border that has increased sharply with a Syrian government offensive against rebels in the nearby Idlib region.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal said a thousand refugees had crossed the border in the last 24 hours, fleeing attacks by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. Among them was a general, the seventh top ranking Syrian officer to have defected to Turkey.

In the Hatay region on Turkey's border with Syria, refugees continued to arrive through the day, a steady stream slipping through gaps in the barbed wire fence that divides the two countries. Behind them, a perilous journey through the hills dodging landmines and the Syrian army.

White Turkish minibuses waited by the impromptu border crossing ready to take the refugees, most of them women and children, to nearby camps to join thousands already there. The total number of refugees was estimated at 14,700.

"We are preparing ourselves for every eventuality," Unal told a news conference. "There is an expectation the numbers will increase. But we cannot say a number.

"Our basic demand is for the end of the political and security situation that leads to people fleeing, but at the moment we don't see such a thing," he said.

The Syrian government says it is grappling with an insurgency by terrorists and foreign-backed militants and denies accusations of brutality against civilian populations.

Turkey is wary of any military interventions in Syria, fearing a broader civil war could spill over its borders. It would also be reluctant to send any forces over the border without a clear necessity and an international mandate.

Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay told NTV television Turkey, which hosts Syrian opposition activists and the rebel Free Syrian Army, was working closely with the Arab League to tackle refugee problems also facing Lebanon and Jordan.

"Of course Turkey has a lot of experience on this matter, about what can be done including the buffer zone which you mentioned. The subject you mentioned is among the possible things we will probably work on in the coming period."

Turkey set up a buffer zone along the border with Iraq during the Gulf War in the early 1990s when tens of thousands headed towards Turkish territory. It has signaled a catastrophic rise in the flow of refugees is one of the few conditions that would make it consider such a zone.

Some Arab governments, notably Qatar, have advocated establishing an Arab peacekeeping force and arming the rebel Free Syrian Army. Those calls may be repeated at a meeting of Western and Arab states, the "Friends of Syria", in Istanbul on April 2.

REBEL ARMY

Refugees told harrowing stories of an assault on the town of Idlib, where Assad's forces turned their attention after a long siege of the city of Homs.

"They are firing on women and children. The tanks have entered the city and are opening fire on the shops," said a 22-year-old man who had just arrived from Idlib and described himself as a fighter in the rebel Free Syrian Army. "They are seizing the doctors so they cannot treat the wounded."

"The (government) soldiers are taking the women and children and lining them up in front of them as a human shield. They are setting the shops and homes on fire," said the man who declined to give his name.

"The FSA has had to withdraw from Idlib for now because they are using women and children," he said. "There is no food or water there now. No electricity, nothing ... I will go back and fight as soon as I get my weapon and ammunition."

One of the camps inside Turkey, surrounded by high security fences, also houses military defectors. Turkey denies arming the Free Syrian Army rebel force, but analysts say it receives at least logistical and communications support from Ankara.

In response to the new flow of refugees, up from about 100-200 a day, Turkey is to open a new camp near the southern town of Kilis next month. It will take a further 10,000 Syrians. Work has also begun on a camp near the eastern end of the border at Ceylanpinar for 20,000 people, the official said.

That would bring the total capacity for Syrian refugees to some 45,000.

Turkey long courted Syrian President Assad as part of its push for influence in the Middle East, but ditched its ally last year after the government's violent suppression of protests and the first wave of refugees began to arrive.

The Turkish government is now at the forefront of efforts to pressure Assad into stepping down or agree a negotiated end to the conflict which has already claimed thousands of lives.

(Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Robert Woodward)

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