Ankara: Turkey on Friday opened up its border to thousands of Kurds fleeing clashes with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) insurgents in neighbouring Syria, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.
Live television footage showed Syrian Kurd refugees, mostly women and children, crossing to the Turkish side of the border in the south-eastern village of Dikmetas, under tight security.
“We have taken in 4,000 brothers,” Davutoglu told reporters in Azerbaijan. “The entries have started now. The number might increase. Their needs will be met. This is a humanitarian mission.”
Ankara, which has given shelter to some 1.5 million refugees from the Syrian conflict under an open-door policy, has been refusing to accept any more for fear of being overwhelmed.
Earlier on Friday, security forces fired tear gas and water cannon at around 100 Turkish Kurds protesting in Dikmetas at Ankara’s refusal to take in the desperate thousands who have massed on the other side of the border in recent days.
Davutoglu said Ankara remained committed to helping Syria’s refugee population, although it would give priority to delivering aid inside Syrian territory.
“We will take in our brothers fleeing to Anatolia from Syria or any other place without any ethnic or sectarian discrimination,” he said. “As long as Turkey remains strong, and has a capacity, it will help everyone seeking refuge.”
But Izzettin Kucuk, the governor of Sanliurfa, said the refugees were taken in as an “exceptional” gesture.
“A permission was granted for our strained Syrian brothers to enter Turkey... they will be settled after identity and health checks,” he told Turkish television.
Exhausted refugees carrying bags over their heads were handed food and water as children cried on their laps and women fainted, according to footage broadcast by CNN-Turk television.
An elderly woman in a wheelchair was seen waiting behind Turkey’s security forces to cross the border, while a Turkish soldier held a child’s hand. The security forces appeared to be expanding the corridor to allow easier passage for the Syrians.
Weeping refugees told tragic stories of Isil militants executing their relatives, and how some had to leave family members behind to guard over their property.
“God bless the Turkish government. They saved our lives but what will happen to the rest back in Syria?” an elderly refugee told NTV television.
Syrian Kurds had been massing since Thursday on the other side of the border amid escalating clashes between the Isil group and Kurdish fighters.
The sound of gunfire was still being heard in Dikmetas, in a sign of ongoing clashes, reports said.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country is a vocal critic of Bashar Al Assad’s Syrian regime, said this week the army was mulling the prospect of setting up a buffer zone along the volatile border.
Turkish officials say their biggest concern is another influx of refugees, and hope a humanitarian buffer zone would allow them to extend help to people the other side of the border.
Isil militants have been closing in on a strategic Syrian town near the border, expelling Kurdish fighters from surrounding villages.
The capture of Ain Al Arab — Syria’s third largest Kurdish town, known to the Kurds as Kobane — would give Isil control of a large strip of Syria’s northern border with Turkey.
Western capitals have upped the pressure on Ankara in recent months to protect its porous frontier and stop the transit of foreign fighters swelling the ranks of Isil in Iraq and Syria.