SYRIAN WAR CLOUDS TURKISH PLAN TO CLEAR LAND MINES

The Associated Press
November 28, 2012 Wednesday 10:05 AM GMT

By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA, Associated Press

For two people walking into a Turkish minefield, they looked awfully
assured.

The pair strode in from Syria on a recent afternoon, following a faint
track across the grassy plain. They slipped into Turkey through a fence
near a vacant military watchtower and vanished into an olive grove.

Such hazardous crossings are a smuggler's tradition at the border,
where Turkish plans to clear a vast belt of land mines have been
clouded by Syria's civil war. Last week, Turkey asked NATO allies to
deploy Patriot missiles as a defense against any aerial attacks from
Syria after shells and bullets spilled across the border, killing
and injuring some Turks.

Starting in the 1950s, Turkish forces planted more than 600,000
U.S.-made "toe poppers" mines designed to maim, not kill and other
land mines along much of its 900-kilometer (560-mile) border with
Syria, which runs from the Mediterranean Sea to Iraq. The aim was to
stop smugglers whose cheap black market goods undercut the Turkish
economy and later to thwart Kurdish rebels from infiltrating Turkey's
southeast.

However, the mines also killed and maimed civilians, took arable land
from Turkish farmers and are now considered by many as a crude method
of policing.

Turkey says it plans to clear anti-personnel mines on the Syria
border by 2016, missing a March 2014 deadline required by the
international Mine Ban Treaty. The International Campaign to Ban
Landmines, a Geneva-based group that won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize,
has criticized Turkey for its slow progress.

The European Union has committed (EURO)40 million ($52 million) to
demining and surveillance equipment near Turkey's borders with Iran
and Armenia on the basis that Turkey could eventually become the EU's
most eastern border. Turkey, adjacent to the Middle East and Central
Asia, has long been a drug trafficking route and a transit point for
migrants who enter Europe illegally.

Since last year, nearly 200,000 Syrian refugees have crossed into
Turkey, mostly through border posts or areas known to be free of
mines. A Syrian man and two children were reported killed in August,
however, by an explosive in an area of Mardin province that had been
mined by the Turkish military. Syrian forces last year were also
suspected of laying some mines to stem an embarrassing refugee flight
into Turkey.

A Turkish smuggler in the border village of Akinci, south of the
city of Gaziantep, said he has charged Syrian refugees up to 25
Turkish lira ($14) each to lead them through Turkish minefields. He
has also acted as a lookout, monitoring shifts of Turkish military
sentries and telling another smuggler who escorts Syrian clients,
usually before dawn.

"I don't know where they are going. I don't care," said the gaunt man,
who would not give his name and claimed he was desperate for cash. "I
know it's risky for me, but I have to do it."

According to lore, villagers used to enter the Akinci mosque, which
lies beside a minefield, for prayers and then sneak out the back into
Syria for business.

On foot, mule or motorcycle, smugglers traditionally brought in
items from Syria, including tea, gasoline, cigarettes, electronics
and livestock, to sell for a profit in Turkey. The Syrian war has
disrupted but not extinguished the trade among communities that were
abruptly divided when the border was drawn in the last century.

Some smugglers try their luck at border posts, which became easier to
cross when visa requirements were removed in 2009 after the warming of
ties between Turkey and Syrian President Bashar Assad, now an enemy
because of his attacks on the Syrian opposition. A few weeks ago,
a Syrian man was detained while trying to enter Turkey with gold bars
in his waistband.

Approved traffic moves the other way, as Turkey and other nations that
oppose Assad send logistical and humanitarian aid to Syrian rebels
and civilians. While Turkey says it is not arming the insurgency,
Syrian rebels have told The Associated Press they receive some weapons
and ammunition from the Turkish side with only sporadic interference
from border patrols. According to rebels, these weapons are bought
with funding from rich Syrians or sympathetic Gulf Arabs.

Fences are down and cars can cross in some parts adjoining Syria's
Idlib province, an opposition stronghold.

The first mines on the Syrian border were planted after smugglers
killed two customs agents in 1956. Turkey laid more mines in the 1980s
and 1990s, at the height of its war with the rebel Kurdistan Workers'
Party, or PKK, which was backed by Syria. Turkey is again worried
about possible infiltration by Kurdish rebels who are cheered by an
autonomy grab by their ethnic brethren in Syria.

The Turkish defense ministry told the AP it started evaluating bids
from demining companies in July and would sign contracts once the
assessment is complete.

"Developments in Syria to this day have not affected our plans or
work," the ministry said. NATO said it is assisting with "technical
preparations" for the mine clearance.

Cenk Sidar, managing director of Sidar Global Advisors, a
Washington-based consultancy, said he believed that Turkey would sign
contracts but wait until the Syrian civil war is resolved.

"According to plans, the government will build electronic border
surveillance systems simultaneously with the demining. Even this seems
too risky at this point," Sidar wrote in an email. "It may take a few
years, and some qualified/selected firms may change their pricing or
conditions due to the increasing instability."

Between 2010 and 2011, a Turkish firm, Nokta, and a partner from
Azerbaijan cleared more than 1,200 mines around an archaeological
site, Karkemish, on the Syrian border. They found anti-tank mines
and M14 mines known as "toe poppers." It was hard to work with metal
detectors because the soil also contained remnants of coins and other
ancient fragments; some mines had to be dug out by hand rather than
detonated to avoid damaging cultural treasures.

There is no reliable data for casualties from mines laid by the Turkish
military, whose fight with the PKK has claimed tens of thousands of
lives. The rebels, who regularly target security forces with mines and
roadside bombs, took up arms in 1984 in the name of Kurdish rights;
Turkey and the West label them terrorists.

Residents around Akinci recalled a villager who lost a limb to a mine
several years ago while cutting trees for military sentries. Halil
Kaya, 64, said he had heard of several dozen people over the decades
who were killed or injured by mines. A deep furrow runs down Kaya's
right forearm from a Turkish military bullet in his days as a smuggler.

Mehmet Dagdeviren, 49, said the Turkish military had softened and
now might only fire warning shots at smugglers. He interrupted the
chat to take a phone call, then rushed to a car and drove away.

A delivery from Syria needed collection.

Umut Colak in Akinci, Turkey, Bulut Emiroglu in Istanbul and Ben
Hubbard in Beirut contributed.