Assad forces bombard northern towns, avoid Turkish border
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
ANTAKYA, Turkey (Reuters) - Helicopter gunships bombarded a strategic town in northern Syria overnight and tanks moved close to the commercial hub of Aleppo, rebels said, but kept well clear of new Turkish air defenses installed to curb Syrian action near its frontiers.
Turkish commanders inspected the missile batteries deployed on the border region on Thursday following Syria's shooting down of a Turkish warplane a week ago, which has sharply raised tensions between the two nations.
The Turkish deployments, a graphic warning to President Bashar al-Assad, coincide with rising violence across Syria and increasingly urgent international efforts to forge a peace deal as the nation slips into full-blown war.
As the Turkish-Syrian dimension ratcheted up further pressure, peace envoy Kofi Annan said on Friday he was "optimistic" that crisis talks in Geneva on Saturday would produce an acceptable outcome, which has so far proved elusive.
However, diplomatic signals emerging later in the day were less than positive. Senior officials holding preparatory talks in Geneva on Friday failed to overcome differences on Annan's plan for a political transition. Western diplomats said Russia was pressing for changes to the text. Russian diplomats said the work continued but they would not "impose" a solution on Syria.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met over dinner in St. Petersburg on Friday. It was unclear whether they narrowed their differences.
Regional analysts said that while neither Turkey nor its NATO allies appeared to have any appetite to enforce a formal no-fly zone over Syrian territory, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan had made it clear Assad would be risking what he called the 'wrath' of Turkey if its aircraft strayed close to its borders.
Erdogan told a rally in the eastern city of Erzurum on Friday, broadcast by Turkish television: "We will not hesitate to teach a lesson to those who aim heavy weapons at their own people and at neighboring countries." Continued...