Officials say armed smugglers often tend to hide themselves among refugee groups
By Humeyra Pamuk
ANKARA, July 30 (Reuters) - Turkish soldiers shot into the air and fired teargas this week to prevent hundreds of people described by the military as smugglers from trying to cross into Turkey from Syria.
In two separate incidents on Monday and Tuesday, groups of up to 2,000 people have approached the border with the "attempt to engage in smuggling", the army said in a statement.
In both incidents, the groups threw stones at the Turkish military patrol which used their vehicles to block the border at the town of Ogulpinar, in Hatay province, which is home to several Syrian refugee camps housing thousands of immigrants escaping Syria's bloody civil war.
Officials had said armed smugglers often tend to hide themselves among refugee groups.
Another group on the Turkish side of the border also threw stones at the Turkish troops and refused to disperse despite warnings in Arabic and Turkish, the statement said, after which the soldiers fired tear gas and shot into the air.
Smuggling of fuel and other goods into Turkey from neighbouring countries has continued for years, but confrontations between the Turkish troops and the crowds that the army describes as smugglers have increased in recent months, officials have said.
Turkey has emerged as one of the strongest backers of the Syrian rebels, sheltering around 500,000 Syrian refugees as well as rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but it denies arming them.
The anti-Assad revolt has evolved from its origins as a peaceful protest movement in March 2011 into a civil war that has killed over 100,000 people and turned markedly sectarian.
With its hilly terrain and thick vegetation, Hatay, a panhandle province that juts down into Syria, makes a relatively easy crossing point for smugglers, as well as Syrian rebel fighters and refugees fleeing the fighting.
The army said it found some 6,000 litres of diesel "in the area of the incident when the group was dispersed" on Monday. In its weekly report of seized goods, the army said it confiscated more than 200,000 litres of fuel since end-June.
In a separate confrontation in the same region, Turkish soldiers fired warning shots at a group of 300-350 people on horseback who were also trying to cross the border on Tuesday and had "attempted to engage in smuggling," the statement said.
It did not elaborate on their activities.
Turkish troops have been wounded and have returned fire in a spate of border incidents over the past month. A Turkish border patrol last week killed a civilian trying to cross illegally into Syria after the group of men he was with opened fire.
In the most serious spillover of violence in weeks, two Turkish teenagers were killed last week by stray bullets fired during clashes between Islamist militants and Kurdish fighters in a Syrian border town several hundred kilometres east of Hatay. (Editing by Jon Boyle and Sonya Hepinstall)
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