Turkish military forces backed by US-led airstrikes have begun an operation to clear IS jihadists from a Syrian town. The operation comes amid growing cross-border tensions. Tanks have now crossed the border.
Turkish artillery began pounding the Syrian border town of Jarablus at around 0100 UTC (4 a.m. local time) on Wednesday, Turkish military sources said, in an operation supported by warplanes from Turkey and a US-led coalition set up to combat the "Islamic State" group in Syria.
A statement from the office of Turkish Prime Minster Binali Yildirim confirmed the start of the offensive.
"The Turkish Armed Forces and the International Coalition Air Forces have launched a military operation aimed at clearing the district of Jarablus of the province of Aleppo from the terrorist organization Daesh," the statement said, using an Arabic acronym for the jihadist group.
News agencies reported that Turkish tank units entered Syria later on Wednesday and were firing on Jarablus, and that Turkish-backed Syrian rebel forces had also crossed the border from Turkey to take part in the operation to take back the town.
Military sources cited by Reuters news agency said IS forces fired a mortar shell into an empty field in Turkey in apparent retaliation for Wednesday's strikes. They also said two Turkish F15 jets were in the air waiting to strike if appropriate IS targets were determined.
Wiping out IS
Turkey and the United States say they hope that removing IS militants from the border region will close a smuggling route for foreign fighters wanting to join the extremists, who hold large, though shrinking, swathes of land in both Syria and Iraq. The Dogan news agency reported on Wednesday that counterterrorism police had also launched dawn raids targeting IS members in Istanbul.
It is the first time that Turkish warplanes have flown attack missions in Syria since November, when Turkey shot down a Russian jet near the border.
The move is likely to cause tensions with US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria, who are also looking to strike in the same area in their operations against IS. Turkey has voiced concern at the growing power of the Syrian Kurds, who it says have links to Kurdish rebels waging an insurgency in southeast Turkey.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said, on Wednesday, that Syrian Kurdish fighters should return to the east of the Euphrates, threatening that Turkey would otherwise "do what is necessary."
In response, a spokesman for the YPG Kurdish militia, which Washington considers an ally, described Turkey's military intervention in Syria as a "blatant aggression in Syrian internal affairs."
The new operation comes a day after three mortars believed to have been fired by IS militants in Jarablus landed in Karkamis. In recent months, Turkey has seen a number of other attacks blamed on the jihadists, including a suicide bombing on Saturday in Gaziantep on a Kurdish wedding party, in which 54 people - most of them under 18 - were killed.
Wednesday's strikes also come on the day US Vice President Joe Biden is visiting Turkish leaders in Ankara to hold talks centered on agreeing a unified strategy on Syria.
tj/rc (AP, dpa, AFP)