ANKARA/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Turkey urged the United Nations to protect displaced Syrians inside their country on Wednesday but President Bashar al-Assad, waging a fierce war with rebels which has uprooted hundreds of thousands of people, di s missed talk of a buffer zone.
Opposition activists said air and ground bombardment killed at least 27 people in eastern neighbourhoods of Damascus, prompting thousands of people to flee the area.
Many more were killed when troops briefly entered several districts after the shelling and air strikes, carrying out summary executions before withdrawing, the activists said.
Ankara fears a mass influx such as the flight of half a million Iraqi Kurds into Turkey after the 1991 Gulf War, and has floated the idea of a “safe zone” under foreign protection within Syria for civilians fleeing intensifying violence.
“We expect the United Nations to engage on the topic of protecting refugees inside Syria and if possible sheltering them in camps there,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.
France supports Turkey’s call for a safe zone in Syria, and pressure for action increased after the U.N. refugee agency said that Syria’s exodus was accelerating. Up to 200,000 people could settle in Turkey if the conflict worsens, the UNHCR said.
Davutoglu said refugee flows in the hundreds of thousands constituted a dangerous international problem.
But the United States and its allies have shown little enthusiasm for providing the military and aerial support to police a no-fly zone which Turkey’s proposal would require.
Assad, in his first television interview since a bomb attack killed four of his top security officials on July 18, brushed off the idea of international intervention.
“I believe that talk about a buffer zone is not practical, even for those countries which are playing a hostile role (against Syria),” he said, according to excerpts of an interview with Syria’s Addounia TV broadcast on Wednesday.
He also ridiculed Turkey, which once cultivated good relations with Assad but turned against him over his violent response to the uprising in which at least 18,000 people have been killed, according to the United Nations.
“Will we go backwards because of the ignorance of some Turkish officials?” Assad said.
Turkey already hosts more than 80,000 refugees and the UNHCR said up to 5,000 people a day had arrived there in the last two weeks. The refugee flow to Jordan has also doubled, it said.
Davutoglu spoke ahead of a U.N. Security Council meeting of foreign ministers expected to focus on Ankara’s proposal.
“We are studying the issue of buffer zones,” said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who will chair Thursday’s meeting in New York, acknowledging the issue was “complicated”.
A French diplomatic source said establishing a buffer zone would be difficult because a U.N. resolution would be needed to set up a no-fly zone - impossible given Russian and Chinese reluctance to move against Assad.
“As a result we have to think about the question of liberated (rebel) zones and how to act so that they can manage themselves independently by preserving a minimum number of institutions,” the source said.
On Turkey’s southern border, Syrian refugee Walid Abedeen said Syrians had long been asking for a buffer zone and a no-fly zone, but an elderly woman in a purple headscarf and a long black dress, who gave her name only as Hala, was sceptical.
“(Davutoglu) is asking for it, but it won’t come to anything. Bashar al-Assad won’t accept it because Iran supports him and Russia supports him,” she said, her back to rows of white tents which make up the Boynuyogun refugee camp.
CONFLICT “WILL TAKE TIME”
Refugee flows to Turkey and Jordan have grown as fighting worsened around Syria’s northern city of Aleppo and across the southern province of Deraa, where anti-Assad protests first broke out, inspired by uprisings in other Arab countries.
The revolt has slid into a civil war pitting mainly Sunni Muslim rebels, backed by regional Sunni powers, against Assad’s Alawite-dominated ruling system, supported by Shi‘ite Iran.
“We are engaged in a regional and global battle and it needs time to be resolved,” the Syrian leader said. “We are making progress ... but it has not been resolved.”
Assad, seeking to crush what he calls Islamist terrorists, praised the “heroic” work of the army and security forces.
Soldiers have been fighting street battles with insurgents in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, while helicopter gunships and jets have bombarded the mainly rebel-held towns nearby.
Rebels attacked the military airport at Taftanaz, 40 km (25 miles) south-west of Aleppo, to try to stem the air strikes.
“The army fired back at us with artillery inside the airport but it wasn’t enough to protect them from the assault. We hit several helicopters and one of the buildings,” local rebel commander Abu Moaz al-Shami said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said heavy fighting had prevented it from dispatching any relief convoys from Damascus for the past two weeks.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent was distributing aid in Aleppo and other regions, but “the situation in many parts of Syria is deteriorating constantly,” ICRC spokesman Hicham Hassan said.
U.N. agencies say a million people have been displaced in Syria and 2.5 million, 10 percent of the population, need help.
Fabius reiterated French calls for Syria’s fragmented opposition to unite to form a unified transitional government.
“As soon as we have an alternative government that is very broad and which, I insist, recognises and guarantees the Alawite, Christian and other communities, then we must recognise it and that, of course, will change everything,” Fabius said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the opposition should “take over responsibility, and ... develop common positions”.
But Assad’s political opponents appear as divided as ever.
Basma Kodmani, a prominent figure in the Syrian National Council which once hoped to win international recognition, resigned on Tuesday, saying the council had failed to earn either credibility abroad or trust at home.
“The groups inside the council did not all behave as one in promoting one national project. Some have given too much attention to their own partisan agendas,” she told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes in Reyhanli, Turkey, Catherine Bremer in Paris, Erika Solomon in Beirut, Noah Barkin in Berlin, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman and John Irish in New York; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alistair Lyon