The continued exchange of artillery fire between Syria and Turkey raises additional concerns that the conflict may escalate and spread to neighboring countries, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said on Saturday.
Panetta said the US was using its diplomatic channels to relay worries about the fighting in the hopes that it will not broaden.
His comments came on the heels of warnings from Turkey’s prime minister that his country is not far from war with Syria.
Turkey and Syria traded artillery fire on Saturday as rebels clashed with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces near the border, heightening fears that the crisis could erupt into a regional conflict.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday cautioned Damascus not to test Turkey’s “limits and determination” and said Ankara was not bluffing in saying it would not tolerate such acts.
Tension along the Syrian-Turkey frontier erupted into violence after a Syrian shell smashed into a Turkish town on Wednesday last week, killing five civilians.
Rebels cemented their control of Syria’s northern frontier with Turkey after fierce clashes with the Syrian army, as their bastions in other parts of the country came under heavy shelling yesterday.
As the fighting raged, Syrian state television said that government forces had pushed rebels out of two of their strongholds in Damascus Province, Qudsaya and Hameh, where a watchdog said the bodies of 10 men were found.
Rebels seized the town of Khirbat al-Joz in the northwest province of Idlib after a pitched battle with regime troops, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“The clashes at Khirbat al-Joz ... ended when fighters of the rebel brigades took control of the area,” the UK-based watchdog said. “The fighting lasted more than 12 hours and resulted in at least 40 dead among the regular forces, including five officers, and nine [rebel] fighters.”
Nearly 80 percent of towns and villages along the Turkish border are outside the control of Damascus, according to the Observatory.
The Observatory also reported that regime forces yesterday pounded the town of Tal-Abyad in the northern province of Raqa, which sits on the border with Turkey and is held by the rebels.
Turkey had on Friday shelled a Syrian military position south of Tal-Abyad, as part of bombardments of Syrian military positions since the Turkish civilian deaths.
The Turkish parliament authorized further military action, but Erdogan said he was not seeking a mandate for war.
Officials said a mortar round struck inside Turkey again on Saturday, prompting fresh retaliatory fire by Turkish troops, but no casualties were reported.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said al-Assad should be replaced by Syrian Vice President Faruq al-Shara, whom he said “is a man of reason.”
The Turkish minister stressed that the Syrian opposition “is inclined to accept Shara” as the future leader of the Syrian administration.
Shara, the most visible Sunni Muslim figure in the minority Alawite-led government, is trusted by the regime and was foreign minister for 15 years before becoming vice president in 2006.
Reports that he had defected in August were denied by Damascus, but some opposition leaders say he is apparently under house arrest.