Turkey’s worsening relations with Syria took another hit this week over a Syrian state news report about conditions in Turkish camps housing Syrian refugees.
The report, distributed Tuesday by Syria’s SANA news agency, called the camps “centers of isolation full of rape and torture.” A woman cited in the report said she’d been raped repeatedly there and that dozens of Syrian girls also had been raped.
The camps house more than 7,500 Syrians who fled the violent crackdown on dissent by the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, called the report part of a “black propaganda” campaign that Syria is now waging against Turkey. He described developments in his country’s relations with Syria as “very, very ugly.”
Erdogan once was considered a close Assad ally, but he’s distanced himself from the Syrian president in recent weeks after Assad rebuffed Turkish calls to end the crackdown on protests, which human rights groups estimate has killed more than 2,000 people since March.
Erdogan said he no longer talked to Assad, though the countries still have diplomatic relations.
“I myself have cut my contacts with the Syrian government,” he said Tuesday in New York. “We would never like to come to this point, but unfortunately the Syrian government has made us come to a point where we had to take this kind of decision. We don’t have any trust left for the current Syrian government.”
Erdogan has been pressing ahead with a diplomatic offensive intended to project Turkey as a leader in the Middle East. Last week, he visited Cairo, where he won accolades for his recent break with Israel over Israel’s refusal to apologize for the killings of nine Turks aboard a Gaza-bound boat that Israeli special forces intercepted in May 2010.
Turkish authorities said the Syrian report on the conditions in the camps in Turkey’s Hatay district, on the Syrian border, appeared to be retaliation for their country’s increasingly hostile position toward Assad’s government.
The official Syrian report quoted a woman, identified only as Fatima, who the report said had returned recently to the village of Jisr al-Shughour in Syria, which had been the subject of a crackdown by Syrian soldiers in June.
The woman said political dissidents from Jisr al-Shughour had raped her in the camp and that they threatened to rape her daughters if she tried to return to Syria. She said a Turkish soldier also had raped her and that as many as 70 Syrian girls had been raped in the camps.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry denied the claims and said it had asked Syria to allow Turkish representatives to interview the woman. The Foreign Ministry called the report “a unique example of black propaganda, lies and evil.” The ministry said it suspected that Fatima was a fictitious person.
Erdogan said he would visit the refugee camps when he returned from New York.
“I want to see the living conditions there,” he said. He left open the possibility of further action regarding the camps “after our evaluation.”