Outside Qaim, Iraq - The Iraqi army sealed the main border crossing to Syria with concrete blast walls on Friday to guard against any escalation in fighting after Syrian rebels seized a border post on the other side from government forces.
A Reuters photographer overlooking the desert frontier from the Iraqi side said civilians had burned the main border post building at Abu Kamal in Syria and stripped it of electronic equipment and cables.
The Abu Kamal-Qaim border checkpoint, about 300km (185 miles) west of Baghdad on the Euphrates River highway, is one of the major trade routes across the Middle East.
Syrian rebels said they seized control of parts of Syria's borders, including the Iraqi crossing, on Thursday, pressing on with their 16-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Iraqi army officials shut off their side of the gate with huge oblong blast walls on Friday, the Reuters photographer said. Officials told him they were preparing for possible outbreaks of fighting on the Syrian side during the night.
A group of about 15 Syrians, including youths and women, moved in and around a blackened border building on the Syrian side. A large picture of President Assad hanging on the building was scorched while one of his father Hafez was untouched.
There was no sign of Syrian border guards, rebel Syrian Free Army fighters or any civilians trying to cross into Iraq. There was no fighting and a nearby Syrian mosque could be heard holding Friday prayers.
Around 40 Iraqi soldiers and a provincial commander arrived at the border crossing early on Friday to reinforce security.
A senior Iraqi interior ministry official, Lieutenant-General Ahmed Al-Khafaji, said Iraq had reinforced key points along its 680 km (420 mile) desert border with Syria with troops and increased patrols.
On Tuesday Iraq called on tens of thousands of its citizens living in Syria to return home as violence in Damascus escalated. Iraq said on Friday it was evacuating citizens by passenger planes.
“The Syrian authorities bear the responsibility of protecting the Iraqis inside Syria,” Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.
“We consider what the (rebel) gunmen are doing as a criminal act, and it definitely deviates from the path of the Syrian revolution. Their problem is with the regime so they must not target our people,” he said.
“If there is unrest at the border posts we are committed to protect our nationals when they enter Iraqi territory.”
The Iraqi Red Crescent said 2,285 Iraqis who had fled Syria had registered for repatriation in the past two days after passing through the northern al-Waleed border crossing.
The security situation in Iraq is still perilous despite an easing in sectarian violence which killed tens of thousands in 2006-2007. Tens of thousands of Iraqis left the country for Syria during the post-war violence, but many have returned since the start of the Syrian uprising.
Iraqi officials say the al-Waleed gate, close to the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, is still open and the Syrian side is controlled by Syrian government border officials. - Reuters