Syria unrest: Turkish nationals urged to return home

The BBC's Jonathan Head says Syrians are fleeing into Turkey from villages near the border

Turkey has urged its citizens to leave Syria, saying developments there have led to "serious security risks".

The foreign ministry said some consular services would be halted on 22 March.

PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan has suggested a safe zone could be established along the border, as refugees numbers rise.

Meanwhile, UN and Arab League envoy on Syria Kofi Annan has briefed the Security Council on his peace efforts. Afterwards he said was sending a team to Syria to discuss deploying monitors.

Mr Annan - who held talks with President Bashir al-Assad in Damascus last week - told reporters on Friday that his main aims were to stop the violence, improve the delivery of aid, and speed up the democratic process in Syria.

The news comes on the first anniversary of the country's uprising, which has left more than 8,000 people dead.

The violence has continued despite a month-long observer mission sent by the Arab League in December and January. Its aim was to verify implementation of a now defunct peace initiative.

Refugee flow

The Turkish foreign ministry said consular services in Damascus would end at the end of office hours next Thursday, but the consulate in the second city of Aleppo would remain open.

Analysis

With refugees streaming across the border at a rate of up to 1,000 a day, Turkey is being forced to rethink its policy towards Syria.

Public anger over the reports of terrible atrocities by President Assad's forces, and over the detention and alleged torture of two Turkish journalists, are also putting pressure on the government.

That may be why Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ministers are for the first time talking openly about establishing a buffer zone, to protect civilians, inside Syria. It would involve Turkish troops crossing the border to protect the buffer zone, and inevitably bring them into conflict with the Syrian army.

That is a very big step for Turkey to take, and it is unlikely to happen unless the flow of refugees becomes a tide of many tens of thousands, and Turkey gets a green light, if not from the UN - at least from its Western allies and the Arab League.

"Developments in Syria pose serious security risks for our nationals," it said in a statement.

"Therefore it is strongly recommended that Turkish nationals currently in Syria leave and return home."

Mr Erdogan said he would also consider withdrawing Turkey's ambassador once all its citizens had returned.

Two Turkish journalists are currently missing in Syria, and are reportedly in the hands of the security forces.

Some reports say they have been wounded and tortured.

Meanwhile, Turkey says it has seen a sharp increase in the flow of refugees across its border in the past few days, with about 1,000 arriving daily and 14,700 in total so far.

The Turkish authorities say they can cope with the current numbers, but they are expected to continue rising.

Mr Erdogan said various ideas were under consideration to deal with the problem.

"On the subject of Syria, a buffer zone, a security zone, are things being studied," he said.

'Immediate intervention'

The international community remains divided on Syria, with Russia and China both blocking UN Security Council resolutions on Syria and aid groups from 27 countries urging them to condemn the government's use of violence.

Free Syrian Army fighters in Idlib province, on 13 March The rebel Free Syrian Army is fighting government troops in several parts of the country

But the two permanent members have backed Mr Annan's peace mission.

The plan includes demands for an immediate ceasefire by both sides, access for humanitarian aid, and the beginning of political dialogue.

On Friday Syria's foreign ministry said Damascus would co-operate with Mr Annan while continuing to fight "terrorism".

Mr Assad has always insisted his troops are fighting "armed gangs" seeking to destabilise Syria.

Anti-government activists have called for mass protests across Syria on Friday to demand "immediate military intervention".

There have been clashes between government forces and army defectors in several areas near Damascus, activists say.

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