Turkey to continue accepting refugees beyond its 'capacity to absorb': official

KILIS, Turkey -- Turkey has reached the end of its "capacity to absorb" refugees but will continue to take them in, the deputy premier said Sunday, as his country faced mounting pressure to open its border to tens of thousands of Syrians who have fled a government onslaught.

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Turkish authorities say up to 35,000 Syrians have massed along the border, which remained closed for a third day on Sunday. The governor for the Turkish border province of Kilis said Saturday that Turkey would provide aid to the displaced within Syria, but would only open the gates in the event of an "extraordinary crisis."

Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told CNN-Turk television that Turkey is now hosting a total of 3 million refugees, including 2.5 million Syrians.

"Turkey has reached the end of its capacity to absorb (refugees)," Kurtulmus said. "But in the end, these people have nowhere else to go. Either they will die beneath the bombings and Turkey will ... watch the massacre like the rest of the world, or we will open our borders."

Kurtulmus said some 15,000 refugees from Syria were admitted in the past few days, without elaborating. He put the number of refugees being cared for on the other side of the border at 30,000.

"At the moment, we are admitting some, and are trying to keep others there (in Syria) by providing them with every kind of humanitarian support," Kurtulmus added. "We are not in a position to tell them not to come. If we do, we would be abandoning them to their deaths."

The deputy premier did not explain why the Turkish border gate at Oncupinar, opposite the Bab al-Salameh crossing in Syria, was being kept closed or why tens of thousands of refugees were not immediately being let in.

In Syria, pro-government forces pressed ahead with their offensive in the northern Aleppo province, which has caused the massive displacement of civilians toward the Turkish border. Syrian opposition activists said Syrian ground troops backed by Russian airstrikes were engaged in intense fighting with insurgents around the village of Ratyan and surrounding areas north of Aleppo city.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Kurdish officials said the main Kurdish militia in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, north of Aleppo, was taking in some of those stuck on the border.

On Saturday, the European Union urged Turkey to open its borders at a meeting between EU and Turkish officials in Amsterdam, saying it was providing aid to Ankara for that purpose. EU nations have committed 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) to Turkey to help refugees, part of incentives aimed at persuading Turkey to do more to stop thousands of migrants from leaving for Greece.

Kurtulmus estimated that "in the worst case scenario" as many as 1 million more refugees could flee the Syrian city of Aleppo and surrounding areas.

The Syrian uprising began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests but escalated into a full-blown civil war after a harsh government crackdown. The fighting has killed more than 250,000 people and forced millions to flee the country.

Pope Francis weighed in Sunday with a public plea for help for Syrians fleeing civil war so that their survival and dignity are assured.

Francis told a crowd in St. Peter's Square on Sunday that "I am following with strong worry the dramatic fate of the civilian population caught up in the violent combat in Syria and forced to abandon everything to flee the horrors of the war."

The pope called upon the international community to spare no efforts to revive negotiations to end the war that began in 2011. The latest round of Syrian peace talks recently stalled.


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