By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA, Associated Press
AKINCI, Turkey (AP) — For two people walking into a Turkish minefield, they looked awfully assured.
The pair strode in from Syria on a recent afternoon, following a faint track across the grassy plain. They slipped into Turkey through a fence near a vacant military watchtower and vanished into an olive grove.
Such hazardous crossings are a smuggler's tradition at the border, where Turkish plans to clear a vast belt of land mines have been clouded by Syria's civil war. Last week, Turkey asked NATO allies to deploy Patriot missiles as a defense against any aerial attacks from Syria after shells and bullets spilled across the border, killing and injuring some Turks.
Starting in the 1950s, Turkish forces planted more than 600,000 U.S.-made "toe poppers" — mines designed to maim, not kill — and other land mines along much of its 900-kilometer (560-mile) border with Syria, which runs from the Mediterranean Sea to Iraq. The aim was to stop smugglers whose cheap black market goods undercut the Turkish economy and later to thwart Kurdish rebels from infiltrating Turkey's southeast.
However, the mines also killed and maimed civilians, took arable land from Turkish farmers and are now considered by many as a crude method of policing.
Turkey says it plans to clear anti-personnel mines on the Syria border by 2016, missing a March 2014 deadline required by the international Mine Ban Treaty. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, a Geneva-based group that won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, has criticized Turkey for its slow progress.
The European Union has committed €40 million ($52 million) to demining and surveillance equipment near Turkey's borders with Iran and Armenia on the basis that Turkey could eventually become the EU's most eastern border. Turkey, adjacent to the Middle East and Central Asia, has long been a drug trafficking route and a transit point for migrants who enter Europe illegally.
Since last year, nearly 200,000 Syrian refugees have crossed into Turkey, mostly through border posts or areas known to be free of mines. A Syrian man and two children were reported killed in August, however, by an explosive in an area of Mardin province that had been mined by the Turkish military. Syrian forces last year were also suspected of laying some mines to stem an embarrassing refugee flight into Turkey.
A Turkish smuggler in the border village of Akinci, south of the city of Gaziantep, said he has charged Syrian refugees up to 25 Turkish lira ($14) each to lead them through Turkish minefields. He has also acted as a lookout, monitoring shifts of Turkish military sentries and telling another smuggler who escorts Syrian clients, usually before dawn.
"I don't know where they are going. I don't care," said the gaunt man, who would not give his name and claimed he was desperate for cash. "I know it's risky for me, but I have to do it."
According to lore, villagers used to enter the Akinci mosque, which lies beside a minefield, for prayers and then sneak out the back into Syria for business.
On foot, mule or motorcycle, smugglers traditionally brought in items from Syria, including tea, gasoline, cigarettes, electronics and livestock, to sell for a profit in Turkey. The Syrian war has disrupted but not extinguished the trade among communities that were abruptly divided when the border was drawn in the last century.
Some smugglers try their luck at border posts, which became easier to cross when visa requirements were removed in 2009 after the warming of ties between Turkey and Syrian President Bashar Assad, now an enemy because of his attacks on the Syrian opposition. A few weeks ago, a Syrian man was detained while trying to enter Turkey with gold bars in his waistband.
Approved traffic moves the other way, as Turkey and other nations that oppose Assad send logistical and humanitarian aid to Syrian rebels and civilians. While Turkey says it is not arming the insurgency, Syrian rebels have told The Associated Press they receive some weapons and ammunition from the Turkish side with only sporadic interference from border patrols. According to rebels, these weapons are bought with funding from rich Syrians or sympathetic Gulf Arabs.
Fences are down and cars can cross in some parts adjoining Syria's Idlib province, an opposition stronghold.