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Rockets From Syria Strike Turkish Border Town in Wake of Merkel Visit

The attacks killed one person and injured 26 people on Sunday in Killis, where 110,000 Syrians have taken refuge from the war in Syria, just after senior European and Turkish officials visited the region to address the refugee crisis.

by VICE News and Reuters
Apr 24 2016, 5:00pm

A mother and her children react after two rockets hit the Turkish town of Kilis near the Syrian border, Turkey, April 24, 2016. (Unit Bektas/REUTERS)

Two rockets hit the Turkish town of Kilis near the Syrian border on Sunday, killing one person and wounding 26 a day after the government promised to protect the area from repeated attacks by Islamic State militants.

The rockets struck two houses in a poor neighborhood near the town center. Turkish soldiers near the border returned fire into Syria, security sources said.

Residents gathered near the site where the rockets crashed, some of them calling for the local governor to resign and others shouting slogans against the government. Riot police were present, but there were no clashes.

"I cannot sleep, my son wakes up with nightmares, he cannot sleep. We aren't safe here. We are afraid to stay in our houses," Ayse, a 46-year-old woman, told Reuters.

Kilis, just across the border from an Islamic State-held area of Syria, is housing an estimated 110,000 Syrian refugees.

Earlier this month more than 20 people were wounded in three straight days of rocket salvoes towards the town.

Related: Video: Renewed Government Shelling and Airstrikes in Syria Kill Dozens and Threaten Ceasefire

Officials have said Turkey may call on allies in the U.S.-led coalition to take stronger action in its campaign against Islamic State along the border to help it prevent further attacks.

The militants come to the border on motorcycles and then fire rockets at the town, Turkish officials have said. The Turkish howitzers at the border have a difficult time firing on, mobile targets, according to the officials.

But in Kilis, patience is wearing thin. Residents said they were frustrated by what they called the government's inability to protect them. "I want the governor to resign," 26-year-old Murat told Reuters, citing his fear of further attacks.

"We aren't even able to sleep."

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had promised on Saturday that all necessary measures would be taken to prevent more rocket fire into Kilis. The town has been peppered by rockets in recent weeks. On Friday two people were killed in a similar attack.

On Saturday Davutoglu visited the nearby city of Gaziantep, about 55 km from Kilis, together with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Council President Donald Tusk.

Merkel had been expected to visit Kilis last weekend but the location and timing of the visit were changed.

During the visit Merkel said she favored creating "safe zones" to shelter refugees in Syria, an idea Turkey has long championed in the face of UN caution.

Keeping refugees on the Syrian side of the border would help Brussels and Ankara, which hosts 2.7 million Syrian refugees, stem the flow of migrants to European shores. The UN has warned against the plan unless there was a way to guarantee the refugees' safety in the war-torn state. Aid workers have opposed it.

Related: Dozens of Iraqi Civilians Returning to Ramadi Are Getting Blown Up By Islamic State Mines

The cessation of hostilities in Syria which began at the end of February and was sponsored by Russia and the United States to allow for peace talks, has since faltered. The opposition, which walked out of negotiations in Geneva said the truce, which excluded powerful jihadist groups such as Islamic State and the Nusra Front, al Qaeda's branch in Syria, was no longer in place.

At a news conference in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, Merkel called for "zones where the ceasefire is particularly enforced and where a significant level of security can be guaranteed."

As tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the fighting in Syria are unable to cross into Turkey, and instead are camped near the Azaz border crossing where local agencies offer humanitarian support, some have accused Turkey of stealthily forming such a zone.

The EU-Turkey agreement to send back thousands of migrants from the Greek islands to Turkey has also been fiercely criticised by United Nations refugee and human rights agencies, as immoral and a violation of international humanitarian law. Rights groups say Turkey is not a country where returnees can be guaranteed proper protection.

Davutoglu, Merkel, EU Council President Donald Tusk, and Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans visited a refugee camp in Nizip and attended the inauguration of a child protection centre in Gaziantep.

Following comments from a Turkish officials that there were problems in releasing the 3 billion euros ($3.37 billion)promised to Turkey to look after refugees, Tusk said access to the funds was being accelerated.

Related: Syria: Thousands Flee Renewed Fighting as Airstrikes Kill 40 Civilians

Amnesty International has said Syrians are being shot at trying to enter Turkey while others are being deported to Syria against their will, a claim Davutoglu refuted on Saturday.

"While Turkey and Europe haggle over long standing political battles like visa free travel, refugees continue to suffer with little chance of protection in Europe and serious violations against them in Turkey," said Gauri van Gulik, deputy Europe director at Amnesty International. "All states have a duty to protect refugees that can't be traded away for political expediency."

Tusk praised Turkey's treatment of Syrian refugees, but said Turkish President Tayip Erdogan should grow a thicker skin in the wake of arrests and lawsuits over alleged insults to the Turkish head of state.

"As a politician, I have learned and accepted to have a thick skin and I have no expectation that the press will treat me with special care; quite the opposite," Tusk said. "And the line between criticism, insult and defamation is very thin and relative. The moment politicians begin to decide which is which can mean the end of the freedom of expression, in Europe, in Turkey, in Africa, in Russia, everywhere."

Hours after Tusk's comments, Turkish police detained a Dutch journalist who wrote a column published in the Netherlands in which she criticized President Tayyip Erdogan for his clampdown on dissent.

Columnist Ebru Umar, who is of Turkish descent and an outspoken critic of Erdogan, was detained by police overnight in Turkey, where she was on holiday.