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Syria war: 22 Turkish troops killed in airstrike in Idlib

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Turkish troops in northern Syria

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AFP

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Turkish troops are backing rebel forces in northern Syria

At least 22 Turkish soldiers have been killed in an airstrike by Syrian “regime forces”, a Turkish provincial governor has said.

Several more were badly hurt in the attack in Idlib in the north-west, Hatay governor Rahmi Dogan said. Other reports put the death toll higher.

Turkey’s president held a top-level security meeting after the strike.

Syrian forces supported by Russia are trying to retake Idlib from rebels who are backed by Turkish soldiers.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants the Syrian forces to pull back from positions where Turkey has set up military observation posts. He has threatened to attack Syrian government forces if they do not halt their advance.

But Syria’s government and Russia have rejected his demand to pull back to ceasefire lines agreed in 2018. Russia has also accused Turkey of violating the 2018 ceasefire by backing rebels with artillery fire.

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Media captionWatch: Turkey’s defence ministry reiterates his country’s threat to Syria

The UK-based monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said at least 34 Turkish troops had been killed in Thursday evening’s air strike.

The wounded had been brought back to Turkey for treatment, Mr Dogan said.

Meanwhile, Nato-member Turkey said Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had spoken to Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

The latest clashes came after the Turkey-backed rebels said they had retaken the strategic town of Saraqeb from Syrian government forces on Thursday.

The fighting in Irbil has driven nearly a million Syrians from their homes since December. The UN said a full-scale battle there could result in a “bloodbath”.

Reuters news agency quoted a senior Turkish official on Thursday as saying that Turkey had decided to stand down its border guards and no longer prevent Syrian refugees from trying to reach Europe. However, this has not been officially confirmed.

A huge new element of risk

By Sebastian Usher, BBC World Service Middle East editor

This is a new and dangerous escalation in an increasingly direct conflict between Turkish and Syrian government forces in Idlib. Both sides have suffered losses over the past few weeks. But the latest Turkish casualties come at a precarious moment.

President Erdogan has threatened to mount a major military operation against President Assad’s forces if they don’t pull back from frontline positions near Turkish troops in Idlib within the next two days.

For now there’s no sign of that happening. Turkey has already been stepping up its military support for the rebel fighters it backs as they mount a counter offensive to try to win back key towns they’ve recently lost.

Behind this conflict looms the potential of an even bigger confrontation. Turkey and Russia have backed different sides in Syria, but have come together to broker battlefield deals in the past few years.

That pragmatic rapprochement is now in doubt. Russian airpower has provided vital support for Syrian forces – if it is now being directed at Turkish military positions, that creates a huge new element of risk.

Earlier on Thursday, Mr Erdogan said three Turkish soldiers had been killed in an airstrike in Idlib.

Turkey’s defence ministry said it had responded to that incident by hitting Syrian “regime targets”.

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Media captionSyrian refugee families on their search for safety

Russia has rejected calls in the UN Security Council for a humanitarian ceasefire in northern Syria.

Responding to a statement from Belgium and Germany that the killing of civilians must stop, the Russian ambassador said the only solution was to chase what he called the terrorists from the country.



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