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Dozens dead as Turkey-backed forces launch assault in Idlib

February 20, 2020

Turkish-backed militants have clashed with Syrian government forces in Idlib as they tried to push into the area. Responding Russian airstrikes killed at least two soldiers.

A rocket being launched in Idlib, Syria
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/G. Alsayed

Turkish-backed militants attacked Syrian government forces in the northwestern Idlib province on Thursday, triggering a clash between the two sides, Turkish state-run media and Syrian opposition activists said.

Turkey's Defense Ministry said on Twitter that some 50 Syrian government soldiers were killed. Five tanks, two armored personnel carriers, two armed pickups and other equipment were also destroyed it said.

Two Turkish soldiers were also killed in an airstrike, the ministry said. Five others were injured in the strike that targeted Turkish troops, it said.

Russia, which backs the regime of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, claimed responsibility for the responding airstrike.

Russia's defense ministry accused Turkey of providing artillery support, according to comments reported by Russian state-run RIA, Interfax and TASS news agencies.

The clashes came a day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned of an "imminent" Turkish military offensive in Idlib. Earlier this month, 13 Turkish soldiers were killed as Syrian forces tried to reclaim the rebel-held stronghold.

'Healthy dialogue'

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said in an interview with CNN Turk on Thursday that Turkey and Russia are discussing the use of Syrian airspace in Idlib. He said the problem can be overcome if Russia "steps aside."

Akar added that there is a "healthy dialogue" between Turkey and Russia on the ground in Idlib. He said that Turkey has no intention of clashing with Russian forces in Idlib and that their only target is the Syrian government. 

Akar also told CNN Turk that Turkey is in talks with the United States over possibly purchasing Patriot missile systems.

"In the past, they have sent us air defense batteries. Our country faces a missile threat," he said. "In this way, there could be a support (through the deployment) of Patriot batteries," he said.

Last year, Turkey secured a deal with Russia to buy S-400 missiles, ignoring a US warning of doing business with the Russians. The US responded by suspending an F-45 fighter jet program with Turkey.

Germany, France concerned

Later on Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron called Russian President Vladimir Putin to express their concern about the humanitarian situation in Idlib.

"Both made clear how much they are concerned by the catastrophic humanitarian situation of the people in the Syrian province Idlib," the spokesman said. "Both demanded an instant end to the fighting and the possibility of humanitarian aid for the people."

Both Merkel and Macron are in Brussels for European Union budget talks.

In the call, Putin "underlined the need to take efficient measures to neutralize the terrorist threat while respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria," the Kremlin said.

dv/aw (AP, Reuters)

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