|[Published: Friday February 28 2020]
34 Turkish soldiers killed in Idlib airstrike by Russian and Syrian forces
ANKARA, 28 Feb. - (ANA) - At least 34 Turkish servicemen have been killed in an airstrike in Syria’s Idlib province, while an unspecified number of soldiers were injured. Turkish officials attributed the strike to the Syrian military and Russian air force.
The attack could dramatically change the course of the Syrian war as fears grow of a direct conflict between Russia and Turkey, a NATO member.
Turkish protesters in Istanbul converged on the Russian Consulate there early Friday, chanting “Murderer Russia! Murderer Putin!”
Turkish officials have avoided blaming the Russian government for aggression against their forces in Syria, hoping to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia’s much stronger military and to keep a line open for talks with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin.
“In Idlib, Turkey’s armed forces were targeted by the regime elements in an airstrike,” Hatay province Governor Rahmi Dogan told the media late on Thursday. While he originally said that nine soldiers had been killed, minutes later the death toll was revised to 33, the Turkish Anadolu Agency (AA) reported, citing the governor.
More Turkish servicemen have been injured in the airstrike, but their number is so far unclear. Dogan's statement comes amid a high-level Turkish security meeting, reportedly chaired by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and presumably focused on the incident.
Unverified reports swirled on social media Thursday, claiming that dozens of Turkish troops were killed in a "Russian" airstrike, that dozens more were injured, and that the hospitals in Hatay were struggling to cope with the influx of the wounded. None of this has so far been confirmed by Ankara.
Speaking to Anadolu, Dogan stressed that there was no shortage of blood at the hospitals, noting that medics have been “taking all necessary interventions” to treat the wounded.
Erdogan’s press secretary Fahrettin Altun told reporters in the early hours of Friday that Turkey is “responding” to the “illegitimate regime that has pointed the gun at our soldiers,” by launching air and artillery strikes against Syrian targets. Altun even described the events in Idlib as a genocide, saying Turkey will not allow the repetition of “what happened in Rwanda and Bosnia” there. “The blood of our heroic soldiers will not be left on the ground,” Altun said, according to AA.
“Our activities on the ground in Syria will continue until the hands reaching for our flag are broken.”
Turkish officials have called the NATO secretary-general and the US national security adviser in relation to the events in Idlib, Anadolu reported.
The situation in Idlib, the last remaining militant stronghold in Syria, has escalated dramatically in the recent weeks with Damascus ramping up its offensive against Islamist militants to reclaim strategic towns, which prompted Turkish military to send thousands of its own troops and hardware to back its allies, fighting against the forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Hatay is the Turkish province bordering Idlib.
While Ankara ruled out its pullout from Idlib, demanding Russia withdraws its support from advancing Syrian troops instead, Moscow has accused Turkey of supporting militants there in violation of the previously agreed arrangement to set up a de-escalation zone.
Shortly before Turkey’s announcement, the Russian military accused the Turkish side of using “artillery fire” as well as “reconnaissance and attack drones” to target the Syrian army positions, without specifying when the strikes have taken place.
Turkey has long supported opposition forces in Syria’s nine-year civil war against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Mr. Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, has largely defeated the uprising, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives and the creation of millions of refugees.
His government, backed by Russian warplanes, is fighting in Idlib to retake the country’s last rebel-held province. In the past three months, the intensified fighting there has driven nearly a million people from their homes, creating a humanitarian crisis on Turkey’s border.
In recent days, tensions between the two sides have been rising, increasing fears of a war breaking out between Turkey and Russia, which controls the airspace in northwestern Syria.
Mr. Erdogan has called for Syrian government and Russia forces to cease their offensive in Idlib and to pull back from Turkish positions, which have been encircled and cut off by Syrian government forces. He has also called for a Turkish-controlled safe zone in the region for the displaced civilians. - (ANA) -
AB/ANA/28 February 2020 - - -