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Confusion hangs over northern Syria attack on Turkish troops

Three Turkish soldiers were killed and 10 wounded in northern Syria by a Syrian airstrike, the Turkish miltary said. But with many groups fighting, it remains unclear how the soldiers were attacked - and by whom.

Ankara wasted no time in placing the blame for the deaths of three soldiers on Syrian government forces.

"In the airstrike assessed to have been by Syrian regime forces, three of our heroic soldiers were killed and 10 soldiers wounded, one seriously," according to a statement on the Turkish Armed Forces' website.

The statement said the attack took place at 3:30 a.m. (0030 UTC) as part of Operation Euphrates Shield. The three month old operation involves Turkish tanks, soldiers, artillery and airstrikes, as well as ground forces from Turkey-backed rebels.  

Turkish state media Anadolu Agency said the airstrike took place near al-Bab, a town that Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces are trying to take back from the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) militant group. 

If confirmed to be a Syrian government airstrike, the attack could increase tension between Ankara and Damascus.

Turkish troops are not fighting Syrian government forces and the attack would be the first assault on Turkish soldiers by Syrian government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters on Thursday that Turkey would respond  to the attack. 

"Three soldiers lost their lives in the attack yesterday. It is clear that some people are not happy with this battle Turkey has been fighting against Daesh (Islamic State). This attack will surely have a retaliation," he said.

Ankara sent ground troops into northern Syria in August to support Syrian opposition fighters to battle "IS" and curb Syrian Kurdish forces' territorial gains. Ankara has said it sees Syrian Kurdish troops as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency in southeastern Turkey.

Disputed facts

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the conflict through a network of activists on the ground, said the Turkish soldiers' deaths were caused by an "IS" suicide attack on Wednesday, disputing the Turkish government claim of an airstrike.

The group's director, Rami Abdurrahman, said the suicide attack occurred in the rural area of al-Bab, near a village called Waqqah and dismissed reports of an airstrike.

The Aamaq news agency, an "IS" media arm, also reported a suicide attack against Turkish troops in a village in rural al-Bab on Wednesday.

The discrepancies in the statements from Ankara and Abdurrahman could not be immediately resolved.

Urging caution

Turkey's main opposition party leader urged the government to act "with common sense" and not escalate already high tensions.

"This (issue) could drag Turkey toward a very dangerous process," Kemal Kilicdaroglu said on Thursday.

The Turkish military is pressing ahead with its efforts to capture al-Bab, with warplanes striking "IS" positions also in the northern Syrian towns of Kabbasin, Bzagah and Arimah, destroying a building reportedly used as "IS" headquarters and seven defensive positions, Anadolu Agency reported, citing unnamed Turkish military officials.

The latest deaths bring to at least 15 the number of Turkish soldiers killed since Turkey began its operation in northern Syria.

cw/jbh/sms (AP, AFP)

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