Turkey closes Syria border after violence flares in both countries

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Daren Butler

AMMAN/ISTANBUL (Reuters) -Turkey closed its main border crossings into northwest Syria on Tuesday after Turkish troops came under fire from Syrians angered by violence against their compatriots in Turkey, a Syrian opposition source and residents said.

In Turkey, police detained 474 people involved in attacks targeting the Syrian community across the country overnight, Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya said, in spreading unrest that began late on Sunday.

Properties and vehicles owned by Syrians were vandalised and set on fire in the central city of Kayseri, stoked by social media reports that a Syrian man had sexually abused a female child relative. Yerlikaya said the incident was being investigated.

The violence spread to the provinces of Hatay, Gaziantep, Konya, Bursa and an Istanbul district, Turkey's MIT intelligence agency said in a statement. There were social media reports of some injuries among Syrians.

Subsequently, hundreds of angry Syrians took to the streets in several towns in the rebel-held northwest Syria, an area where Turkey maintains thousands of troops and has carved out a sphere of influence that has stopped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from regaining control.

Late on Monday, Turkey responded to the unrest by closing until further notice the Bab al Hawa border crossing, a main trade and passenger conduit for more than 3 million inhabitants, along with Bab al Salam and other smaller crossings, a border official told Reuters.

The Syrian border city of Afrin was the scene of the most violent clashes, with at least four people killed in an exchange of fire between armed protesters and Turkish troops.

Elsewhere, there were skirmishes and armed clashes, with civilians hurling stones at Turkish convoys in several towns, and tearing down the Turkish flag on some offices.

Several Turkish officials described the unrest in Syria as "provocations", with the Foreign Ministry saying: "It is wrong to use the sad events that took place in Kayseri ... as the basis for some provocations beyond our borders."

In a speech on Tuesday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan blamed the "chaos plan" on groups associated with terrorist organisations, and vowed to reveal the "dirty hands" behind the recent incidents.

"We know who is playing in these games staged with the remnants of the terrorist organisation. Neither us, nor our Syrian brothers, will fall into this sly trap...we will not give in to racist vandalism," Erdogan said following the cabinet meeting.

Erdogan said more than 670,000 people have returned to areas in northern Syria, where Turkey has been operating to create safe zones over the past decade.

He added, the refugee issue will be solved humanely and morally in line with the economic realities of Turkey, which is hosting more than 3 million Syrian war refugees.

Erdogan said last Friday a meeting with Assad was possible to help restore bilateral relations. Turkey severed ties with Syria after the 2011 Syrian civil war and supported rebels looking to oust Assad.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi, Daren Butler, Tuvan Gumrukcu, Huseyin Hayatsever and Ece Toksabay; Editing by Jonathan Spicer, Helen Popper and Sharon Singleton)