5 Turkish troops die in Syrian army clashes; talks in Ankara

Turkey sent hundreds of military vehicles and troops into Idlib province in the past week.

10 February 2020 | 17:06

Source: Associated Press

  • Source: Associated Press
  • Last update: 10 February 2020 | 17:06

Rebel fighters fire a missile towards Syrian government positions in the province of Idlib. (AP Photo)

ANKARA: Turkey said it hit back at Syrian government forces on Monday after “intense” Syrian shelling killed five of its soldiers and wounded five others in Syria’s northern Idlib province.

The fighting in Idlib led to the collapse of a fragile cease-fire that was brokered by Turkey and Russia in 2018. Turkey supports the Syrian rebels, while Russia has heavily backed the Syrian government’s campaign to retake the area which is the last rebel stronghold in Syria.

The exchange of fire came even as a Russian delegation arrived in the Turkish capital of Ankara for the second round of talks to discuss the fighting in neighboring Syria. Eight Turkish military and civilian personnel and 13 Syrian soldiers were killed in a similar clash in the province last week.

A Turkish defense ministry statement said Turkish artillery immediately responded to the attack, destroying targets.

“Our fire support vehicles immediately fired on the targets with intensity and the necessary response was given,” the ministry said.

The opposition monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory reported that six Turkish soldiers were killed and seven were wounded when Syrian government forces shelled the Taftanaz airbase in Idlib on Monday. It added that four Syrian rebels were also killed in the shelling.

An airstrike in a nearby rebel-held region, meanwhile, killed nine people including children, opposition activists said.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, backed by Russian air cover, have been advancing into the last rebel-held areas of Idlib and the nearby Aleppo area, seizing dozens of towns and sparking a large-scale humanitarian crisis. Some 600,000 people have fled the fighting there.

Most of the displaced are living in open-air shelters and temporary homes in freezing winter conditions close to the Turkish border. Half of the displaced are believed to be children.

Turkey sent hundreds of military vehicles and troops into Idlib province in the past week. The buildup and the continued government advances sparked a rare clash on Feb. 3 between Turkish and Syrian soldiers that killed eight Turkish military personnel and 13 Syrian troops. Turkey has warned Syria to retreat to the cease-fire lines that were agreed in 2018.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkish and Russian delegations exchanged proposals over the situation in Idlib during a first meeting in Ankara on Saturday. On Monday, the Russian team returned to Ankara from a visit to Jordan, for further discussions, he said.

“If a compromise had been reached there would have been no need for today’s meeting,” Cavusoglu told reporters. He said the Turkish and Russian leaders could step in if no compromise is reached.

Syria’s military has vowed to keep up its campaign.

The early morning airstrike on the village of Ibbin in Aleppo province killed nine people, including six children, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, and the Step news agency, an activist collective. At least 10 people were also wounded in the airstrike.

The Syrian government’s campaign appears to be aimed at securing a strategic highway in rebel-controlled territory for now, rather than seizing the entire province and its the densely populated capital, Idlib.

The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media released a map of the area of fighting showing that Syrian troops only have 15 kilometers (9 miles) left from seizing full control of the strategic highway, known as M5. The highway links the national capital of Damascus with the country’s north, which has for years been divided between government and opposition forces.

Meanwhile, a car bomb exploded Monday in a Syrian town controlled by Turkey-backed opposition fighters, killing at least four people and wounding 15 others, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

The attack was the latest in a series of explosions in Turkish-controlled regions that have killed and wounded scores of people. Turkey has blamed the attacks on the Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the People’s Protection Units.

The bomb went off on the main street in the town of Afrin, which Turkey took control of following a military incursion in 2018, Anadolu reported. It said some of the wounded were in serious condition, adding that the death toll was likely to rise.

The Turkish offensive was aimed at pushing Kurdish fighters away from the border. Those Kurdish fighters had been key U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State group. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish fighters terrorists linked to a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.

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