Mar 4, 2016 4:16 PM

Turkish-Russian tensions not felt in village near border

The Associated Press

AL-ISSAWIYAH, Syria (AP) In this Syrian mountain village perched above the Mediterranean, residents say they have enjoyed a measure of peace, even though they live near a border that has seen escalating tensions in recent months between Turkey and Russia.

The villagers, most of whom are members of Syria's Turkmen ethnic minority, have formed their own militia, but they rely heavily on the Syrian army, said Al-Issawiyah's mayor, Mustafa Yussef Kafe.

On Friday, hundreds of them lined up to receive a truckload of food, water and other humanitarian aid sent by Moscow, a longtime ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The delivery was part of a cease-fire that began last weekend in the 5-year-old civil war between Assad and the rebels trying to oust him from power.

"We live in peace here, and we are very grateful to Russia for the help it is offering," the mayor told international reporters on a trip to the village organized by Russia's foreign and defense ministries.

On Nov. 24, NATO-ally Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 that it said ignored repeated warnings and crossed into Turkish airspace from Syria for about 17 seconds. The two pilots of the Russian warplane ejected, but one was killed by Syrian rebel fire as he parachuted from his aircraft. One of two helicopters sent to the crash site to search for survivors was also hit by rebel fire, killing a serviceman.

The incident came less than two months after Russia began a campaign of massive airstrikes in Syria. The bombardment helped Syrian government troops retake lost ground in an offensive against groups that Assad considers to be terrorists, although the U.S. said most of the targets have been rebels supported by the West.

"We are deeply sorry for the Russian pilot," Kafe said, referring to the Russian airman's death as a "heroic deed."

Russia denied the intrusion, and President Vladimir Putin denounced Turkey for what he described as a "treacherous stab in the back." He responded by imposing economic sanctions, including restricting Turkish imports to Russia and a ban on Russian package tours to Turkey.

Putin also ordered the deployment of long-range air defense missiles to the Russian air base in Syria that is 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the border with Turkey. Russia has said it would destroy any target threatening its warplanes.

Al-Issawiyah sits in the mountains just 15 kilometers (9 miles) south of the Turkish frontier.

Before the cease-fire, the Syrian army launched an offensive around the northern city of Aleppo under Russian air cover, and the Kurdish YPG militia sought to extend its gains near the border.

Turkey has threatened unspecified military action to halt the Kurdish offensive and has shelled militia positions along the border before the truce began, leading to a significant reduction in hostilities.

Lt.-Gen. Sergei Kuralenko, who heads the Coordination Center at the Russian air base, said monitors registered 41 truce violations Wednesday and Thursday, but he emphasized that "the cease-fire has been largely holding."

The most troubling situation was in Aleppo province, where there have been 13 violations in the past 24 hours, Kuralenko said.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov said the Russians have been involved in round-the-clock information exchange with the U.S., in what he described as business-like and "very professional."

He said the Russian warplanes that operated at hectic pace throughout the five-month Russian campaign have mostly stayed on the ground since the beginning of the cease-fire. Russian and Syrian jets haven't targeted opposition groups that have pledged to abide by the truce, he said.

With the truce helping sharply reduce hostilities across Syria for the first time in the five-year conflict, the Russian military said it was trying to reach out to local communities and opposition groups to encourage them to support the cease-fire.

"Our groups are working with the population, local authorities and the opposition so that peace comes to each Syrian province," Kuralenko said.

Residents of Al-Issawiyah said the village has been spared the fighting, although Turkmen militants operated just to the north against Syrian troops.

"The Syrian army is protecting us, and it has remained calm," said school teacher Daed Akili.

Dr. Ayub Kara Fallah said the Turkmen in the village don't feel alienated from the rest of the country.

"We don't make difference between the Turkmen or the Arabs. We are all Syrians," he told the reporters on the Russian-led tour of the village. "The cease-fire is the right way forward."

Added 76-year-old Ahmad Zaza: "We are thankful to Putin for helping the Syrian people."

Muhammad Najar, a refugee from Damascus whose wife is from the village, denounced the Turkmen militants as "traitors of the Syrian people."

Abdel Hamid Akkad, a 42-year-old office worker who fled Aleppo with his family of seven, said he has had to live on his savings because he couldn't find a job in the village.

"This area is among the safest in Syria," he said, but he still dreams of going home.

"If Aleppo is freed, I will be among the first to return," he added.

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