Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned on Monday that civil war was looming in neighbouring Syria as President Bashar al-Assad's regime was continuing to "mercilessly murder" its own people.
ANKARA- "The situation that has emerged there is right now heading towards a religious, sectarian and racial civil war. This must be stopped," Erdogan said at a televised press conference.
"Turkey must play a leading role here. A civil war which could emerge would put us in difficulty... and pose a threat to us," he said.
Turkey, which shares a 910-kilometre (570-mile) border with Syria, has stepped up criticism of Assad's bloody crackdown on opposition protests, which has claimed more than 5,000 lives since mid-March, according to UN estimates.
Erdogan has already openly called on his one-time ally Assad to step down.
"Syria right now has an administration which mercilessly murders its own citizens. Nobody can expect us to applaud... authoritarian regimes," said Erdogan.
Turkey is home to around 7,500 Syrians who have fled across the border with its southern neighbour in the face of the crackdown and Ankara fears an influx of refugees on its border amid the continuing violence.
The government is also fearful that the bloodshed in Syria could stoke further unrest in Turkey and possibly lead the Kurdish communities on both sides of the border to rise up.
Ahead of Erdogan's warning about the risk of a full-blown civil war, a foreign ministry spokesman in Ankara had called on the Syrian opposition to pursue its resistance through peaceful means.
The spokesman's comments followed a meeting on Sunday in Istanbul between Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and members of the umbrella opposition group the Syrian National Council.
"The Syrian opposition demands democracy and we told them during a meeting yesterday (Sunday) that this should be done through peaceful means," the spokesman told AFP.
Davutoglu's meeting with a 10-member delegation headed by SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun is his third following contacts with the group in October and November last year, the spokesman said.
The SNC has an office in Istanbul and Colonel Riyadh al-Asaad, who heads a group of defectors called the Free Syrian Army, is based in a Turkish border camp.
But Turkish officials have said repeatedly that Ankara will not let its territory be used to launch attacks against the Assad regime after Syria-based news reports cited armed groups' infiltrations from the Turkish side.
Turkey last year joined the Arab League and Western powers in imposing a raft of economic sanctions on Damascus, including suspending all financial credit dealings with Syria, freezing Syrian government assets, and banning all military sales.
Damascus retaliated by suspending a free trade pact reached with Ankara after long negotiations, and also raised import duties, increased fuel oil prices and delayed truck transportation.
Its action prompted Ankara to announce a new set of punitive measures, including the imposition of a 30 percent tax on goods from Syria.
Erdogan said on Monday that Turkey had begun implementing sanctions against the Syrian leadership, adding that they would increase according to the situation on the ground.
Turkey has also been seeking alternative routes to bypass Syria for trade with the Middle East.