ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey warned Syria on Thursday that it could hit back for Damascus’ alleged support of Turkish Kurds in the most serious warning yet to its estranged southern neighbor.
"I declare once more to the world that we reserve the right to retaliate against Syria–which has not abandoned its hostile attitude despite all our warnings and peaceful initiatives–and that our patience is nearing an end," Turkish President Suleyman Demirel said at the opening of parliament. Members of Parliament responded with a round of applause.
Tense ties between Turkey and Syria have worsened in recent weeks as the two sides exchanged accusations over water sharing–Turkey’s military links to Israel and Syria’s alleged support of the Kurds.
"Syria is continuing to actively support the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) terrorist group," said Demirel. "This is not a friendly approach."
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ismail Cem said the warning to Damascus should not to be taken lightly.
"I hope they (the Syrians) take it seriously–because we have very serious concerns about Syria," Cem told the NTV television channel.
Turkey’s Defense Minister Ismet Sezgin said earlier that the powerful military-dominated National Security Council had discussed the growing tension with Syria–Anatolian news agency said.
"The subject of Syria was discussed–a report was presented and views were stated," it quoted Sezgin as saying of Wednesday’s meeting.
The council’s decisions are virtually binding on the government. But there was no mention of any measures decided by the council–a leftover from military rule in the early 1980s.
"I believe diplomacy has the ability to solve many things. I hope we will solve this through diplomatic channels. If we don’t solve it through diplomatic means–the game will be played by the rules," Sezgin said.
A spokesman for NATO member Turkey’s general staff denied newspaper reports of a buildup of Turkish troops and armor along the Syrian border.
He said an increase in military hardware in the area was due to NATO military exercises in the coastal town of Iskenderun.
Asked about the alleged military buildup–Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz told reporters: "When necessary–every necessary precaution is taken."
Ankara accuses Syria of aiding the PKK which is fighting for Kurdish rule in Turkey’s southeast and sheltering PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in Damascus. Nearly 29,000 people have been killed in the 14-year conflict.
More than 5,000 troops backed by air power have begun an assault against the PKK in a mountain stronghold in eastern Turkey–officials said on Thursday. Strike helicopters and F-16 jets fired rockets and bombed PKK rebels in a ravine.
Syria has condemned Turkey’s increasing military cooperation with Israel which it says is directed against itself–Iraq and Iran.
Israel and Turkey say their military cooperation is not aimed at a third country. Their pact allows Israeli jets to train in Turkish airspace. Israel is upgrading Turkish fighter planes. Israel and Turkey have announced plans to stage fresh naval maneuvers in the eastern Mediterranean and joint air exercises.