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Turkey opens Syrian border crossings for Ramadan visits

Associated Press logo Associated Press 14/06/2017 By MEHMET GUZEL and ZEYNEP BILGINSOY, Associated Press
In this Tuesday, June 13, 2017 photo, a Syrian living in Turkey waits to cross into Syria at the Oncupinar border crossing, near the town of Kilis, Turkey. Thousands of Syrians are returning home for the holy month of Ramadan as Turkey temporarily opens two border crossings. The border has been closed for security concerns caused by the ongoing Syrian war and only opens under special circumstances. (AP Photo/Mehmet Guzel) © The Associated Press In this Tuesday, June 13, 2017 photo, a Syrian living in Turkey waits to cross into Syria at the Oncupinar border crossing, near the town of Kilis, Turkey. Thousands of Syrians are returning home for the holy month of Ramadan as Turkey temporarily opens two border crossings. The border has been closed for security concerns caused by the ongoing Syrian war and only opens under special circumstances. (AP Photo/Mehmet Guzel)

KILIS, Turkey — Thousands of Syrian refugees are returning home for a visit during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, after Turkey temporarily opened two border crossings with its war-torn neighbor.

For some of the younger ones travelling back, the visit means seeing some of their relatives, even siblings, for the very first time. Ankara says those who go back can return with their papers and a special "religious holiday permission."

Turkey has taken in more than 3 million Syrian refugees who arrived by way of legal or illegal crossings since the start of their country's civil war more than six years ago.

The official border crossings were shut in 2015 — barring exceptions such as serious injuries — to prevent a spillover of the conflict and stem the flood of refugees. Ankara has also been building a wall along the boundary to curb cross-border movement of fighters.

Many Syrians welcomed the opportunity to go back, even briefly.

Twenty-one-year-old Ismail Hadidi Jafar was waiting to cross into Syria from the Oncupinar gate in the southern province of Kilis on Tuesday, to visit his parents and family in Aleppo. He left two years ago and hadn't gone back since.

"I have a young sibling whom I've never met," Jafar told The Associated Press, preparing to cross over.

As he waited, the crowds swelled and hundreds of refugees had to stand in the scorching sun to be individually processed by police and migration officials for the crossing. Seeing the lines, some abandoned plans to visit, but excitement remained high.

Turkey's official Anadolu news agency said that since June 1 when the crossing of Cilvegozu in Hatay province opened, some 30,000 Syrians have left to visit their homes. Oncupinar opened for the first time on Tuesday for the Ramadan visits.

Turkey has also grown increasingly involved in the Syrian conflict. It launched a cross-border operation last summer, sending in tanks and troops along with Syrian opposition forces to clear its border and a swath of northern Syria from the Islamic State group — and also to counter the spread of U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters there.

The Turkish government views Syria's Kurdish People's Protection Units, known as YPG, as a terrorist organization and an extension of Kurdish militants who have been waging a three-decade-long insurgency against Turkey.

The two crossings will remain open for departures to Syria until June 23. Returns will be allowed through Oncupinar until July 14 and Cilvegozu until Sep. 30 but Turkish authorities reserve the right to amend these dates.

Mohammed Izzo, 28, who also hails from Aleppo province in northern Syria, said he's been longing to see his family.

"The area we were in was under Daesh control," he said using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. "I didn't go visit after Daesh left so I'm going now."

Izzo said he will return to Turkey after Eid al-Fitr, the religious holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.

Mohammed Dede, a father of three, said he's thinking about leaving Turkey for good. He is headed first to Jarablus, a town on the Syrian side of the border that was taken from IS by Turkey-backed fighters in August.

"If the situation is calm there I want to open up a business and return," the 37-year-old refugee said. "I want to continue my life there."

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Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul.

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