Syria says any foreign troops would return ‘in coffins’

AP

DAMASCUS: Syria’s foreign minister warned Saturday that Saudi or other foreign troops entering his country would “return home in wooden coffins” and asserted that recent military advances put his government “on track” to end the five-year-old civil war.

Walid al-Moallem’s comments capped a week that saw the collapse of the latest UN-led Syria peace efforts and a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive near the city of Aleppo that sent thousands of residents fleeing toward Turkey

A Turkish official said Saturday that as many as 35,000 Syrians had massed along the closed border.

Suleyman Tapsiz, governor of the border province of Kilis, said Turkey would send aid to the displaced, but had no immediate plans to let them in. He said Turkey was prepared to open the gates in the event of an “extraordinary crisis.”

The Norwegian Refugee Council said thousands of Syrians have arrived at seven of the main informal camps close to the Turkish border. The group said the camps were already at capacity before the latest influx, and that aid groups are working around the clock to deliver tents and essential items to the displaced.

In Amsterdam, EU foreign ministers held informal talks Saturday with their Turkish counterpart.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini urged Turkey to open its borders to the Syrians and said the EU is providing aid to Ankara exactly for such purposes. She said the displaced are “Syrians in need for international protection,” and that this was the message delivered in the meeting.

Some of the refugees found shelter in Afrin, a Kurdish enclave to Aleppo’s north controlled by a militia known as the YPG, said a Kurdish official, Idris Naasan. The militia hoped to prevent a humanitarian disaster and help those stuck at the border, he said.

The week had begun on a somewhat hopeful note, with UN envoy Staffan de Mistura declaring the launch of indirect talks between a Syrian government delegation and opposition representatives in Geneva.

However, he was forced to adjourn by mid-week, after the opposition said there was no point negotiating while pro-government troops backed by Russian airstrikes escalated attacks and gained ground north of Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city. The offensive appeared aimed at encircling strongholds rebels have held in the city since 2012.

The breakdown of the talks was followed by a warning from opposition backer Saudi Arabia that it is ready, in principle, to send ground troops to Syria, albeit in the context of the U.S.-led military campaign against Islamic State extremists who control large areas of Syria and Iraq.

Russia’s Defense Ministry meanwhile said it had “reasonable grounds” to suspect that Turkey, another opposition ally, is making intensive preparations for a military invasion of Syria.

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