Turkey targets Syrian troops in deadly counterattack
At least 13 Syrian government soldiers were reportedly killed by Turkish shelling in Idlib region, Syria, on Monday, in an attack that came in "retaliation" for an earlier strike by Syrian troops that killed eight Turkish soldiers, according to the Britain-based war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The clash marks a rare confrontation between Syrian forces and Turkish troops based in the northwestern region of Syria.
The war monitor said the Turkish attack — south of the flash point town of Saraqeb — seriously wounded another 20 regime fighters.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Turkish forces had hit 54 targets in Idlib, and had killed 76 Syrian troops, according to state-run Anadolu news agency.
Erdogan: Offensive to continue
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had earlier vowed that his country's military operation in Syria's Idlib region would continue after the death of Turkish soldiers.
"We have responded in kind to these attacks and will continue to do so, whether it is with our artillery or mortars," he told reporters in Istanbul.
"We are determined to continue our operations for the security of our country, people and our brothers in Idlib."
Read more: Syria: Airstrikes kill several civilians in Idlib
Russia blames lack of information
Erdogan urged Russia, an ally of the Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, to not stand in the way of Turkey's response.
The Syrian strike targeting Turkish troops happened despite Ankara giving prior notification of its soldiers' whereabouts, the Turkish Defense Ministry said.
Russia has said a lack of information was to blame for the strike.
"Turkish troops were changing locations at night in the Idlib de-escalation zone without informing the Russian side," the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement on Monday, according to TASS news agency.
The Turkish troops "came under fire from Syrian government troops targeting terrorists in an area west of Saraqeb," the statement added.
Turkey, however, has held firm after Moscow's response. A spokesman for Erdogan, Omer Celik, on Twitter said: "The statement that Russia was not informed is not correct. Turkey is providing regular and instant information to Russia. It also informed them in this latest event..."
Last rebel-held territory
The attack on Turkish troops was responded to immediately, according to a social media post by Erdogan's spokesman Ibrahim Kalin.
Monday's tit-for-tat shelling incidents come amid a Syrian government offensive into the last rebel-held territory, located in Idlib and parts of the nearby Aleppo region.
Turkish troops had been deployed to monitor a fragile cease-fire, which later collapsed.
Turkey — which opposes the Assad regime — has refused to leave 12 observation outposts in Idlib, saying they are recognized by an agreement with Moscow.
However, the Syrian regime views the outposts with hostility, and in December surrounded one of them in a move that nearly opened a new front in the conflict.
Read more: Syria: Clashes near Aleppo, children's plight highlighted
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lc, kw/ng (Reuters, AFP)