Turkey has fired several artillery rounds at targets inside Syria in a marked escalation of the 18-month conflict that is spilling over the Syrian borders. The Turkish assault was launched Wednesday just hours after shells, believed to have been fired by Syrian military forces, struck a Turkish border town killing five, including a woman and her three children.
"Our armed forces in the border region immediately returned fire within rules of engagement, with artillery units hitting targets detected by radar inside Syria," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's office said in a statement. "Turkey will never let such provocations by the regime in Syria go unanswered."
In Brussels, at an emergency meeting of its 28 members, including Turkey, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization stated: "The alliance continues to stand by Turkey and demands the immediate cessation of such aggressive acts against an ally, and urges the Syrian regime to put an end to flagrant violations of international law."
In Washington, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor announced: "We stand with our Turkish ally and are continuing to consult closely on the path forward."
"All responsible nations must make clear that it is long past time for Assad to step aside, declare a ceasefire and begin the long-overdue political transition process," said Mr. Vietor, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's deadly crackdown on an uprising against his rule.
Tens of thousands of Syrians escaping the civil war in their country have taken refuge inside Turkey, mostly in the border area. Many are known to be members of the Free Syrian Army, a disparate rebel force seeking to overthrow the Assad regime.
"The Syrian forces fired at the rebels and hit our town," Abdulhakim Ayhan, mayor of Akcakale, told CNN-Turk, a private Turkish broadcaster.
Since June 22, when Syrian forces shot down a Turkish fighter jet, the border area of the two countries has been on edge, with angry Turkish citizens complaining that the policy of the Islamist-oriented Erdogan government was putting citizens' lives at risk.
At that time, NATO also condemned the Syrian act, but threatened no military action.
This time was different. Turkey "needed to respond to an attack on its soil," Nihat Ali Ozcan, a security analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey in Ankara, told Turkish television. "But I don't think it will lead Turkey into an armed confrontation with Syria."
Errant shells have landed frequently inside Turkish territory and just last Friday a shell hit the same town of Akcakale, with no casualties.
Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc called on NATO to take appropriate action, arguing that NATO nations have responsibilities in the "face of such an attack on a member country."
"We are not seeing red," the Anatolia news agency quoted Mr. Arinc as saying. "But it is undeniable that we will seek our rights to the end faced with the loss of lives and an attack on our land."
For its part, Syria offered "condolences to the families of the victims and to our friends the Turkish people."
Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi added that "the concerned parties are currently studying the origin of the fire against Turkey," hinting it could have come from Syrian rebel forces in an effort to draw Turkey and NATO into the fighting.
Mr. Zoabi reiterated his government's charges that it is battling foreign-backed "terrorists," whom it has frequently accused Ankara of training and financing.
"There are armed terrorist groups who constitute a danger not only to Syrian national security, but also to regional security," he said.
Without specifically blaming the rebels for the cross-border shelling, Mr. Zoabi said: "We call for the border to be controlled and for terrorists to be prevented from crossing."
Activists in the region, however, insist the shells had come from Syrian military forces.
"Syrian tanks in Raqa province shelled Tal al-Abyad [a rebel held town on the Syrian side of the border] and some of the shells fell on Turkish territory," a Raqa-based activist who identified himself only as Wael told AFP news agency via the Internet.
"The Turks then fired shells in response," he added.
His account was corroborated by another activist and by the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.