Syria's extradition of 22 may lead to closer security ties with Turkey

Thursday, December 4, 2003

ANKARA Ņ Turkey intends to bolster security cooperation with Syria in wake of the extradition of 22 suspected insurgents by Damascus to Ankara.

Turkish officials said they have scheduled a series of high-level talks over the next few weeks that could culminate in a summit between Syrian President Bashar Assad and Prime Minister Recep Erdogan in Ankara next month.

The two countries plan to discuss bolstering cooperation in border security as well as in the war against Al Qaida and their related groups.

Officials said Turkey wants Syria to increase cooperation in protecting their border area from Kurdish insurgents based in northern Iraq, Middle East Newsline reported.

Officials said the commander of the Turkish National Border Guards, Gen. Cener Araigor, will arrive in Damascus for a two-day visit next week. The semi-official Anatolia news agency said Araigor will meet senior Syrian commander and officials in an effort to intensify cooperation to combat Al Qaida and what the agency termed šinternational terrorism.

The Araigor visit has been preceded by that of Turkish parliamentarians to Damascus. A six-member parliamentary delegation has arrived in Damascus to formally thank Assad for cooperating in the capture of suspects in the November Al Qaida attacks in Turkey.

Officials said Syrian authorities acted quickly after a request by Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul to his counterpart, Farouk A-Shaara.

Last week, the Assad regime handed over 22 Turkish nationals who escaped to Syria in wake of the Al Qaida suicide attacks in Istanbul in which nearly 100 people were killed. The Turks included two key suspects in the bombings of two synagogues in Istanbul on Nov. 15.

"Both Iran and Syria, at least recently, have been cooperating with Turkey on the issue of terrorism," Gul said. "We hope this continues."

This was the first time the extradition portion of the Syrian-Turkish accord has been implemented by the Assad regime, officials said. They said Damascus handed over the Turkish nationals, including a specific fugitive linked to the Al Qaida attacks, within three days of Gul's request for Syrian cooperation.

Officials said Assad has relayed his acceptance of an invitation to visit Turkey in early 2004. This would mark the first visit by a Syrian president to Ankara and culminate two years of Turkish efforts to bring Assad to the country.

Syria and Turkey have improved their military and security relations since nearly coming to blow in 1998 amid Ankara's demand for Damascus to extradite PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Turkish officials said the Erdogan government still wants Syria to close its border to PKK insurgents coming from northern Iraq for safe haven. About 5,000 PKK members are believed in northern Iraq, with many of them shuttling between that area and Syria.

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