Thousands of smugglers swamp Turkish border, soldiers injured

ANKARA (Reuters) - Eighteen Turkish soldiers were injured on Tuesday when a group of several thousand alleged smugglers clashed with the army as they tried to cross into Turkey from Syria, the military said.

The group of 2,500-3,000 people threw stones at military patrol vehicles on the border at the town of Ogulpinar in Hatay province and refused to disperse after warnings were issued in Turkish and Arabic, the statement said.

Turkish troops shot into the air and fired teargas to disperse the crowd as another group of smugglers on the Turkish side of the border also threw stones at the soldiers.

An additional force of 300 soldiers was deployed in Kusakli village on the Turkish side of the border, after the villagers threw Molotov cocktails at the soldiers and fired with pump rifles, which caused light injuries to 18 soldiers.

The incident on Turkey's long Syria frontier, where the tensions have been on the rise over the past couple of months, followed a similar confrontation between Turkish troops and hundreds of people described by the military as smugglers only a week ago.

Smuggling of fuel and other goods into Turkey from neighbouring countries has continued for years, but confrontations between the Turkish troops and the crowds that the army describes as smugglers have increased in recent months, officials have said.

Turkey has emerged as one of the strongest backers of the Syrian rebels, sheltering around 500,000 Syrian refugees as well as rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but it denies arming them.

With its hilly terrain and thick vegetation, Hatay, a panhandle province that juts down into Syria, makes a relatively easy crossing point for smugglers, as well as Syrian rebel fighters and refugees fleeing the fighting.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Michael Roddy)