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Syria Conflict: Turkey Border Closed To Trade, Not Refugees

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Syrian refugees walk out the container city in Kilis at the border with Syria after clashing with police during a demonstrating over their living conditions on July 22, 2012. (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/GettyImages)
Syrian refugees walk out the container city in Kilis at the border with Syria after clashing with police during a demonstrating over their living conditions on July 22, 2012. (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/GettyImages)


By Ozge Ozbilgin

ANKARA, July 25 (Reuters) - Turkey has closed its border gates with Syria to commercial traffic due to worsening security conditions but will keep them open for refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict, the Turkish customs minister and a UNHCR spokeswoman said on Wednesday.

Syrian rebels seized control of several gates on the Syrian side of the frontier over the last week in their 16-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and minister Hayati Yazici said the resulting insecurity prompted the move.

"Operations at our customs gates have been temporarily suspended," Yazici told a news conference in the capital Ankara, but said the gates had not been totally closed. He did not say for how long commerce was being halted.

According to a ministry statement, Turks will no longer be able to cross through the border and only Syrians fleeing the violence or on personal business will be able to pass through.

"In order to protect our citizens from the potential dangers they would face in Syria...it was necessary to stop them crossing over, whether as passengers or for trade," he said.

The ministry said "uncontrolled" forces had destroyed facilities on the Syrian side of the border and plundered trucks, leaving no authority or system in place.

Refugees from Syria, who have been fleeing into Turkey in their thousands, have until now mainly crossed the border through smuggling routes. There are currently more than 43,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Sybella Wilkes, spokeswoman of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told Reuters Ankara had assured them the border would remain open to refugee flows.

"We've received assurances that it is staying open. The border is closed for all commercial traffic in both directions, that is what we heard from the Turkish government," she said.

About 300 Syrians had crossed overnight into Turkey, she added, some of them are using informal crossing points.

"The Turkish government is still actively welcoming refugees and offering them protection," Wilkes said.


HAZARDOUS TRADE

Travelling in Syria had become increasingly hazardous for truck drivers involved in trade between the two countries. They faced the constant risk of being targeted by combatants or caught in the crossfire between the two sides.

Wednesday's move will close the only three border gates that were still open, at Cilvegozu, Oncupinar and Karkamis. There are three other border gates which are already effectively closed.

Tensions along the border increased after last month's shooting down of a Turkish military jet by Syrian air defences.

Ankara, which previously had close ties with Damascus, subsequently increased its military presence, sending anti-aircraft missiles to the border and scrambling planes when Syrian aircraft came close to Turkish territory.

Turkey called for Assad to quit after he failed to heed calls for reform and the country has harboured Syrian rebels and tens of thousands of refugees along its border with Syria.

Turkish trade volume with Syria fell to $2.3 billion in 2011 from $2.8 billion a year earlier and amounted to just $302 billion in the first five months of this year. (Reporting by Ozge Ozbilgin in Ankara, Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by John Stonestreet)

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lebanon Hussein Ali Omar, 60, one of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims that Syrian rebels have been holding for three months in Syria, hugs his mother, right, upon arrival at his house in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, 2012. Syrian rebels freed Omar on Saturday in a move aimed at easing cross-border tensions after a wave of abductions of Syrian citizens in Lebanon. The Shiite pilgrims were abducted May 22 after crossing into Syria from Turkey on their way to Lebanon. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)


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France24 correspondents Matthieu Mabin and Sofia Amara report from the front lines of a rebel offensive against the Syrian army in Damascus.

Watch the exclusive report in the video below.

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syria This image made from video and released by Shaam News Network and accessed Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012, purports to show the funeral of children in Daraya, near Damascus, Syria. Syrian troops backed by tanks and helicopters broke into a Damascus suburb on Thursday following two days of shelling and intense clashes as part of a widening offensive by President Bashar Assad's forces to seize control of parts of the capital and surrounding areas from rebel fighters, activists said. At least 15 people were killed in the offensive on Daraya, only a few miles (kilometers) southwest of Damascus. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network SNN via AP video)


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Clashes between Assad supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime killed two people in Lebanon on Friday, the Associated Press reports. 17 people were injured.

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Syria was in virtual control of its smaller neighbor for many years, posting tens of thousands of troops in Lebanon, before withdrawing under pressure in 2005. Even without soldiers on the ground, Syria remains influential, and its civil war has stirred longstanding tensions that have lain under Lebanon's surface.

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lebanon A Sunni gunman fires a gun during clashes that erupted between pro and anti-Syrian regime gunmen in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. The latest round of fighting first erupted on Monday in northern Lebanon and at least 15 have been killed in Tripoli this week and more than 100 have been wounded in fighting that is a spillover from Syria's civil war. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)


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@ KenRoth : UN reports 200,000 #Syria refugees, 30,000 in past week alone. Many more internally displaced not counted. http://t.co/BaM6u59j

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syria Syrian boy Musataf Alhafiz, 11, who fled his home with his family due to fighting between the Syrian army and the rebels, carries his brother Saif, 9 months, while he and others take refuge at the Bab Al-Salameh border crossing, in hopes of entering one of the refugee camps in Turkey, near the Syrian town of Azaz, Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012. Thousands of Syrians who have been displaced by the country's civil war are struggling to find safe shelter while shelling and airstrikes by government forces continue. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)


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lebanon Lebanese commandos ride in an armored personnel carrier in preparation to enter the area of clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime, in the northern port city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012. The civil war in Syria is affecting its fragile, tiny neighbor Lebanon in countless ways and has already spilled over into sectarian street clashes, kidnappings and general government paralysis.(AP Photo/Hussein Malla)


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