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February 28, 2020

Turkey rejects Russian explanation over Idlib attack that killed 33 soldiers


Fri, Feb 28, 2020
File photo

ANKARA: Turkey on Friday rejected Russia´s claim that 33 Turkish troops killed by Syrian regime fire in the province of Idlib were among groups of "terrorists".

"I want to state that during this attack, there were no armed groups around our military units," Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said in televised remarks.

Russia´s defence ministry had said that that the Turkish troops "were in the battle formations of terrorist groups" and had not communicated their presence in the area "where they should not have been".

But Akar said Thursday´s strike in the northwestern province took place "despite coordination with Russian officials", adding that the bombardment continued despite "warning" of the Turkish troops´ presence.

He said ambulances were also hit.

The latest incident has raised further tensions between Ankara and Moscow, whose relationship has been tested by violations of a 2018 deal to prevent a regime offensive on rebel-held Idlib.

As part of the agreement, Ankara set up 12 observation posts in the province but Syrian President Bashar al-Assad´s forces -- backed by Russian air power -- have pressed on with a devastating assault on Idlib.

While Damascus ally Russia accuses rebel-backer Turkey of supporting "terrorists", Ankara has repeatedly urged Moscow to stop the regime violating the ceasefire.

The Turkish military immediately retaliated against regime targets, and Akar said over 200 regime targets had come under heavy fire from armed drones and other weapons.

Akar claimed over 300 regime elements had been "neutralised" while Turkey destroyed dozens of Syrian helicopters, tanks and howitzers.

Thirty-two soldiers were also wounded in Thursday´s air strike.

More civilians killed

Militants and Turkish-backed rebels on Thursday re-entered Saraqeb, a key Idlib crossroads town they had lost earlier in February, reversing one of the main gains of the government´s devastating offensive.

The counteroffensive could, however, be short-lived as Russian-backed Syrian troops continued to chip away at other parts of the rebel bastion, capturing 20 localities.

Seven civilians, including three children, were killed in regime and Russian bombardment of Idlib, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, adding to more than 400 such deaths since December.

The UN Security Council, where Moscow has systematically vetoed truce initiatives, met again Thursday amid growing concern Idlib is witnessing the nine-year-old war´s worst humanitarian emergency.

State news agency SANA acknowledged there were "fierce clashes" between the army and "terrorist groups on the Saraqeb front".

An AFP correspondent accompanied the rebels into Saraqeb, where he found a ghost town of bombed out buildings.

The counterattack temporarily reverses one of the key gains of the government since its offensive against the country´s last rebel enclave in December.

Refugee fears 

The cash-strapped government had been keen to fully secure the M5, a highway that connects Syria´s four main cities and passes through Saraqeb.

The Syrian Observatory said the air strikes were carried out by Assad government ally Russia, heavily criticised by the West for the high civilian death toll from its bombing campaign.

State media accused the "terrorists" of launching car bombings and other suicide attacks against government forces attempting to retake the town.

It said the army had inflicted heavy losses on the attackers, despite the military support it said they had received from Turkey.

Some 950,0000 civilians have fled the government offensive, raising fears in Ankara of a new influx of refugees.

Turkey already hosts the world´s largest number of Syrian refugees -- around 3.6 million people -- placing an increasingly unpopular burden on public services.

The country´s ruling party spokesman Omer Celik told CNN Turk broadcaster on Friday that Ankara was not in a position to "hold" refugees any longer and called on the European Union to do more.

More than half a million of those displaced since December are children, tens of thousands of whom are sleeping rough in northern Syria´s harsh winter.

UN powerlessness 

The Turkish president vowed on Wednesday that Ankara would not take the "smallest step back" in the standoff with Damascus and Moscow over Idlib.

Erdogan warned the Syrian government to "stop its attacks as soon as possible" and to pull back by the end of the month.

The UN has repeatedly warned the fighting in Idlib could potentially create the most serious humanitarian crisis since the civil war´s start in 2011.

Russian vetoes, often backed by China, have chronically crippled UN action in Syria.