Turkey’s president accuses opposition of stoking racism after anti-Syrian rioting erupts

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused opposition parties of stoking xenophobia and racism on Monday, a day after residents in a neighborhood in central Turkey set Syrian-owned shops on fire.

The rioting erupted in the Melikgazi region of central Kayseri province late on Sunday, following reports that a Syrian refugee there had allegedly sexually harassed a 7-year-old Syrian girl. Outraged residents overturned cars and set shops ablaze, calling on Syrians to leave.

At least 67 people suspected of involvement in the violence were detained, Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya said on the social media platform X.

In a televised address on Monday, Erdogan accused opposition parties, which have advocated for the repatriation of refugees, of inciting violence.

“Nothing can be achieved by fueling xenophobia and hatred of refugees in society,” Erdogan said and accused the opposition of “poisonous discourse.”

When neighboring Syria’s civil war broke out in 2011, Turkey received hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees with compassion, becoming the country to host the largest refugee population globally. As the population grew and Turkey encountered escalating economic difficulties, it has seen a rise in anti-migrant sentiment.

Turkey is now home to 3.6 million refugees, according to government figures, though some argue the real population may be significantly larger.

Officials said the alleged abuser in the Melikgazi region was arrested while the girl, her siblings and mother were placed under state protection and would receive psychological support.

Umit Ozdag, the leader of Turkey’s anti-migration Victory Party, rejected Erdogan’s accusation and blamed the Melikgazi tensions on the government’s allegedly “privileged” treatment of Syrian refugees.

“In summary, it’s the government’s wrongful Syria policy that is to blame,” Ozdag said. “Don’t go looking elsewhere.”

The Melikgazi violence drew a backlash in opposition-held areas of northwestern Syria, including those controlled by Turkish-backed forces.

In Syria’s Aleppo province, near the border with Turkey, dozens of people gathered at the main roundabout in the town of al-Rai to “prevent the entry of Turkish convoys and trucks” and prevented Turkish trucks from entering the city of al-Bab, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

Videos circulating on social media show young men and boys carrying rocks and sticks, chasing after a truck bearing Turkish writing. Demonstrators also chased employees out of a Turkish post office in the Syrian city of Azaz, the group said. In some places, protesters clashed with local security forces.

The Syrian National Army, a coalition of armed Syrian opposition groups backed by Turkey, urged residents of northwestern Syria to “avoid being drawn in by seditionists who seek to sabotage our institutions.”

Tensions have been rising in Syrian opposition-held areas over an apparent rapprochement between Ankara and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, including plans to open a crossing between government-held areas and those held by Turkish-backed opposition forces in Aleppo.

The al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group’s “salvation government” of the region issued a statement calling on Turkey to “assume its legal and moral responsibilities to protect Syrian refugees.”

In 2021, similar anti-Syrian riots broke out in an Ankara neighborhood after a Turkish teenager was stabbed to death in a fight with a group of young Syrians. Hundreds of people chanting anti-immigrant slogans took to the streets, vandalized Syrian-run shops and hurled rocks at refugees’ homes.


Associated Press reporter Ghaith Alsayed in Idlib, Syria, contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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