QAMISHLI, TURKEY/WASHINGTON - Turkish forces have fired on Syrian Kurdish protesters from the border town of Qamishli. The protesters said they were trying to show support for fellow Kurds in the beleaguered Syrian town of Kobani. Ankara says the demonstrators provoked the violence.
On Thursday, thousands of demonstrators in Qamishli, a Syrian border town to the east, took their message into the Turkish buffer zone, a dusty, vacant no-man's-land between the two countries. An exclusive video captured by VOA's Kurdish service shows ethnic Kurds on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border rallying in support of the people of Kobani, under heavy attack from Islamic State militants.
Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer reports the protesters praised Syrian Kurdish militias for their resistance against the Islamic State. The militias are viewed with suspicion by Ankara for their links to the PKK. Also known as the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK fought against the Turkish government for almost 40 years until a 2013 cease-fire. The PKK is considered a terrorist group by Turkey and the U.S.
The Syrian Kurdish protesters were joined in the open buffer zone by Kurds from Nusaybin on the Turkish side of the border. Kurds consider the two cities to be one with the border running down the middle of it. The two groups joined together in pulling down the wire fences that separated their cities.
Turkey's regional governor Mustafa Taskesen said the protesters raised the PKK flag on the border: "And they sandwiched our soldiers. They took our soldiers' position and as I said, raised the flag." Turkish forces used tear gas to try to disperse the crowd and get it to leave the off-limits military zone, one that a Turkish armed forces statement says is "a heavily mined area."
The Turkish armed forces said in a statement that sentries fired warning shots first in the air and then on the ground. However, the crowd -- estimated by the Turkish military at 4 to 5,000 -- refused to leave. The Turkish military said Syrian Kurds then shot at Turkish soldiers, forcing the sentries to respond in kind.
While at least one protester threw rocks, journalist Zana Omer saw no guns among the protesters.
Turkish officials maintained that guns were central to the day's events, part of what the armed forces called a smuggling operation. Taskesen said, "We have welcomed refugees, but these 2,000 people who were trying to cross the border were not refugees. They had a different agenda... What we have learned was that those people smuggled arms and ammunition into Nusaybin [Turkey]." Taskesen added that the Turkish military had received intelligence two days earlier that the protesters' intent was to use their march to create "chaos" in order to mask their smuggling operation.
Both sides agree there were casualties. According to Omer, at least four people on the Syrian side were shot and injured. The fate of one victim remains unclear.
Almost every Turkish city with a significant Kurdish population has seen protests and riots in the last week as the situation in Kobani has worsened. At least 22 have been killed across the country in the worst violence Turkey has experienced in years.
While the Turkish Parliament has approved military action against the Islamic State and mustered tanks and troops along the border, the military has not acted, infuriating Turkey's Kurdish population.
Friday, the U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, urged Turkey to let "volunteers" [Kurds] cross the border to reinforce Kurdish militias defending Kobani against Islamic State militants. He warned that 700 civilians who remain trapped in Kobani, plus about 12,000 gathered nearby, will most likely be "massacred" if the city falls to the Islamists.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday he will not give into street protesters demanding his government do more to protect Kurds.