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Syrian civil war spills over into Turkey, raising tensions

The Syrian war spilled over into the Turkish borderlands today, as Syrian mortars killed at least five civilians in the border town of Akcakale, triggering Turkish reprisal strikes against artillery targets inside Syria, according to U.N. and Turkish officials.

The skirmish has fueled concern among top U.N. and Arab officials that a widening conflict may become a deadly reality. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pleaded with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutolgu in a phone conversation to maintain open lines of communications with Syrian authorities to prevent the exchange from escalating into a more violence cross-border conflict.

"The secretary general has repeatedly warned that the ongoing militarization of the conflict in Syria is leading to tragic results for the Syrian people," according a statement from Ban's office. "Today's incidents, where firing from Syria struck a Turkish town, again demonstrated how Syria's conflict is threatening not only the security of the Syrian people but increasingly causing harm to its neighbors."

Ahmad Fawzi, the spokesman for the U.N.-Arab League special representative to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said today's cross border violence underscored a chief concern of the U.N. trouble shooter and his predecessor, Kofi Annan . "This is an example of what we have been warning about for seven to eight months," he said. "If this explodes, it will be catastrophic for the region and by its very nature will involve the proxy powers."

The cross-border incidents came as a devastating bomb attack in Aleppo marked a deadly new phase in the struggle for Syria's second largest city, highlighting the increasing escalation of violence by opposition forces in a conflict that began as a popular, and largely peaceful, anti-government uprising.

A series of four explosions -- apparently targeting a Syrian officers club and other pro-regime facilities in the Sadallah Jabri Square -- killed more than 30 people and turned a historic section of the city into rubble.

Syrian government officials denounced the bombing as a ruthless terrorist attack by suicide bombers that failed to discriminate against military and civilian victims. But supporters of the resistance said that attacks were against a military target.

"This is a legitimate target, nobody can get into that area without a military ID," said Radwan Ziadeh, a U.S.-based member of the opposition Syrian National Council. "All the people killed there they belong to the Assad regime's army."

The United Nations and Western human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, stopped short of condemning the attack, saying they did not have sufficient information to determine whether the attack targeted legitimate military installations, or whether they had recklessly endangered civilians in a heavily populated urban area.

But Fawzi said that the scale of the violence is growing daily. "The escalation is happening on both sides and we have said time and time again that the government should stop using heavy weapons, including helicopter gun-ships, and the opposition should equally cease attacks," he said. "But we are not equating the two because it is obvious the government is stronger and we ask that the government first stop and that the opposition, in turn, stop."

Human Rights Watch emergencies researcher Ole Solvang, who returned from a visit to Aleppo in August, voiced concern about abuses by opposition forces. Solvang said his group documented more than a dozen cases of extra-judicial executions of individuals suspected of serving in pro-government militias, known as Shabhiha, and the widespread use of a torture method -- the falaqa -- which involves the beating on soles of the feet, and which "seemed to be condoned from above." But he said the overall insurgent strategy was aimed more at gaining control of the town rather than sowing terror.

Solvang said the resistance in Aleppo was deeply riven between more moderate pro-democracy groups and Islamists engaged in a "battle of ideas or visions" about the future of Syria. But he said he saw little evidence to support a major role by foreign jihadists.

Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria, said today's attack does not reflect an isolated attack by a fringe extremist group, but a strike in a broader rebel strategy aimed at destroying the sense of security and stability of Syria's urban elites in the power centers of Damascus and Aleppo in exchange for their political support.

"This is all about these two major cities: they are the prize, they are the golden goose," said Landis. "The rebels have to take that away: the goal is to take away the security and stability from every Syrian because then, this government will offer them nothing."

"The trouble is the government cannot allow the rebels to just take the cities; it can't play that game because it will lose," he said. "What that means is that the cities are going to be destroyed. They are going to be turned into Berlin; they are going to be firebombed by both sides."

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