AKCAKALE, Turkey (AP) — Turkey sanctioned further military action against Syria on Thursday and bombarded targets across the border with artillery for a second day, raising the stakes in a conflict that increasingly is bleeding outside Syrian territory.
Although both sides moved to calm tensions, Turkey's parliament overwhelmingly approved a bill allowing the military to conduct cross-border operations into Syria — making clear that Ankara has military options that do not involve its Western or Arab allies.
It was the most dramatic escalation in tensions between the countries, which were close allies before the revolt against Syrian President Bashar Assad began in March 2011. Over the past 18 months, however, Turkey has become one of the strongest critics of the Syrian regime, accusing it of savagery and massacres against the opposition.
The rebels who are trying to bring down Assad have used Turkey as their base, enraging a regime that accuses foreign countries of fomenting the unrest inside Syria.
The spark for the latest hostility was a mortar shell fired from Syria that slammed into a house in the Turkish border village of Akcakale on Wednesday, killing two women and three children.
"(The shell) hit my neighbor next door. His wife, his children died," villager Bakir Kutlugil told The Associated Press. "Now I worry whether the next one will hit me or my neighbor."
Mehmet Yasin, another villager, said he feared Turkey will get drawn into more violence. "They are warring over there anyway. Why should we battle against anyone?" he asked.
The Turkish response to the Syrian shelling was swift — it fired salvos of artillery rounds inside Syria, contacted its NATO allies and convened Parliament for a vote authorizing further cross-border military operations if necessary.
The bill opens the way for unilateral action by Turkey's armed forces inside Syria. Turkey has used a similar provision to repeatedly attack suspected Kurdish rebel positions in northern Iraq.
Syria's U.N. envoy said Thursday that his government was investigating the source of the cross-border shelling and did not want any escalation of violence with Turkey.
Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari said the Assad regime sent its "deepest condolences" to the families of the victims, but stopped short of an apology, pending the outcome of the investigation. He also urged Turkey to act "wisely, rationally" and prevent infiltration of "terrorists and insurgents" and the smuggling of arms across the border.
Turkish officials, however, characterized the statement as an apology.
Ja'afari said that the return shelling from Turkey early Thursday injured two Syrian army officials.
Syrian opposition figures in Akcakale, which has a clear sight line into Syria, said the targets of Turkey's retaliatory attacks included at least one tank and one anti-aircraft gun in the town of Tal Abyad in Raqqa province, where the Syrian regime and rebels are battling for control.
Some residents of Akcakale, fearful of more stray shells, abandoned their homes and spent the night on the streets. Others gathered outside the mayor's office, afraid to return to their homes as the dull thud of distant artillery fire rumbled.
The border violence has added a dangerous new dimension to Syria's civil war, dragging Syria's neighbors deeper into a conflict that activists say has already killed 30,000 people.
Still, both Syria and Turkey appear loath to see the situation spiral out of control.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Thursday that Turkey did not want war with Syria but was determined to protect its borders and its people.
"We want peace and security and nothing else. We could never want to start a war, "Erdogan said. "Turkey is a country which is capable of protecting its people and borders. No one should attempt to test our determination on the issue."
Erdogan suggested the Syrian shelling was not accidental, saying that shells had fallen on Turkish territory on seven previous occasions since the civil war began.
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