Turkey Issues “Last Warning” to Syria

ANKARA (Reuters)–Turkey issued a "last warning" to Syria on Tuesday over what it calls Damascus’s backing of Kurds and canceled all leave for troops guarding the two countries’ frontier.

The warning came shortly before Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak arrived in Ankara and had several hours of talks to tackle a dispute that could have serious implications for the whole Middle East.

"We are warning Syria for the last time," Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz told a meeting of his party deputies.

"We want them to stop their support for separatist terrorists and stop their policies of hostility. We are waiting for a reply from Syria," he said. Yilmaz did not suggest what action Ankara might take if it received no satisfactory reply from Damascus.

The Turkish stock market plunged nine percent on Monday amid fears over an escalation of the Syrian dispute adding to the turmoil afflicting emerging markets in general. But on Tuesday the market held steady.

Turkey accuses Syria of giving logistical support to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

"We heard Turkey’s views on the situation. President Mubarak is here for negotiating between the two sides," Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa said after talks with Turkish President Suleyman Demirel at the end of the five-hour visit.

Mubarak arrived in Damascus later on Tuesday for more consultations with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. Mubarak had an initial round of talks with Assad in Damascus on Sunday.

A statement from Demirel’s office said: "Our president … explained in detail Syria’s support for terrorist activities against Turkey–made clear this situation could not continue … and set out the concrete steps necessary for Syria to take."

Syria said on Tuesday that Turkish threats would harm regional stability and security and renewed a call for dialogue.

"The campaign of threats launched by some Turkish officials against Syria and the false allegations they make to export their internal crisis does not serve peace and security in the region," said Suleyman Kaddah–regional secretary of the ruling Baath Party.

Syria–which has had territorial claims against Turkey since the 1930s–denies any link with the PKK. Syria is also at odds with Turkey over sharing of water resources and Ankara’s friendship with Israel.

"Israel is playing a dangerous role by establishing a military alliance with Turkey which is aimed at threatening Syria and the Arab and Moslem peoples," said Kaddah.

Turkey believes it is close to defeating the PKK on the battlefield and its troops have made frequent forays into northern Iraq to attack PKK strongholds there.

Western diplomats and Turkey say PKK chief Abdullah Ocalan is based in Damascus. Syria has repeatedly denied the charges.

Turkish security officials said thousands of soldiers and security police on the 550-mile frontier had been ordered on Monday not to take leave.

Turkish newspapers voiced skepticism about the benefits of Mubarak’s visit.

"Mubarak must take a clearer position against terror along the Ankara-Damascus axis," said Milliyet columnist Yalcin Dogan. A commentator in the mass-circulation Sabah newspaper said Damascus must bow to Ankara or "pay the price."

"There is no middle way. Those who expect Turkey to step back are deluding themselves," commentator Hasan Cemal said.

The long-running dispute flared up last week when Turkish officials warned of military action against Syria.

The United States–disturbed about a potential clash–urged its NATO ally Turkey and Syria to exercise restraint.

"We have concerns about the possibility of this moving in a negative direction," said State Department spokesman James Rubin on arrival in Jerusalem with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for talks on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

"We very much don’t want this to go to the next step because in this case … it would be a grave risk of a much larger conflict," Rubin said.

Syria has called for Arab support on a level with that seen in the 1973 Middle East war when Arabs united behind Syria and Egypt against Israel.

The Arab League has echoed Syrian and Iranian charges that Turkey’s new informal ally–Israel–fomented the row.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said his country–which signed a wide-ranging defense pact with Turkey in 1996–has no part in the quarrel.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi said on Monday night he would consider any Turkish attack on Syria as an "aggression" against Libya. He warned Ankara that its business interests with Tripoli would be hurt should any attack take place.

Lebanon–Jordan–Algeria–Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries have all urged a diplomatic solution to the dispute.

Israeli jets are allowed to train in Turkey’s air space and Israel is upgrading Turkish fighter planes under a 1996 accord.

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