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February 12, 2020

Erdogan warns Damascus: Syrian regime’s helicopter downed


February 12, 2020

Qaminas, Syria: Tensions escalated on Tuesday between the Syrian regime and rebel-backer Turkey as a Syrian military helicopter was shot down and Ankara warned of a "heavy price" for any attacks on its forces.

The new flare-up, a day after regime shelling killed five Turkish troops, came as government forces battling rebels in northwestern Syria took full control of a key highway linking the country’s four largest cities.

The advance marked another step in President Bashar-al-Assad’s campaign to retake Syria’s last rebel-held pocket, where nearly 700,000 civilians have fled violence since December in the largest exodus since the start of the war.

Shortly after the M5 motorway was recaptured, a rocket attack downed a Syrian regime helicopter in Idlib province, killing both pilots, an AFP correspondent and a war monitor said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the helicopter was hit by a rocket fired by Turkish forces, though Ankara did not claim responsibility.

An AFP correspondent saw the bodies of the two pilots and the mangled remains of the helicopter at the site of the crash near the village of Qaminas, southeast of Idlib city.

Turkey, which has troops deployed in several locations in northern Syria, continues to support rebel groups battling the Assad regime or acting as proxies against Kurdish forces.

Along with regime ally Russia, it is the key foreign broker in northern Syria, but a 2018 deal aimed at averting a major offensive has failed to take hold. Erdogan said Turkish troops would continue to respond to Syrian regime attacks. "The more they attack... our soldiers, they will pay a very, very heavy price," he told a televised ceremony in Ankara. Ankara said on Monday it had "neutralised" 101 Syria regime troops in response to the deadly artillery attack on its position in Idlib, but that information could not be verified independently.

Neither the Observatory nor Damascus reported any casualties among Syrian troops on Monday.

Erdogan said he would reveal his next steps on Wednesday. He spoke after Syrian regime forces retook full control of the key M5 highway from jihadists and allied rebels in the northwest of the country for the first time since 2012, the Observatory said. That highway links the capital Damascus to the second city of Aleppo through the cities of Homs and Hama, and has been a key target for the government as it seeks to rekindle a moribund economy.

Its recapture also helps secure Aleppo, the country’s former industrial hub, which still comes under sporadic rocket fire from holdout rebel groups.

In Idlib city on Tuesday, Syrian air force strikes killed at least 12 civilians, the Observatory said. Half of those killed in the strikes were minors, according to the monitor.

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