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UN warns 'major international confrontation' possible after 33 Turkish troops killed in Syria

The soldiers were killed in the province of Idlib by a Syrian air strike last night.

A Turkish military convoy drive in the east of Idlib in Syria
A Turkish military convoy drive in the east of Idlib in Syria

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR Putin and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan have held crisis talks after 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in a regime air strike in Syria.

The attack by Syrian forces in the northwestern province of Idlib last night, in a region where Bashar al-Assad campaigning to oust rebels from their last stronghold in the country.

US President Donald Trump condemned the attack and joined Erdogan in calling on Russia and Syria to halt the operation in Idlib.

Hours after the strike, Turkey warned that it would open its border to allow refugees currently in the country to flee to Europe, a move that could have major repercussions for Europe.

The strike added to weeks of tensions between rebel supporter and NATO member Turkey and Syria’s ally Russia, and has increased international concerns about the plight of those living in the rebel-held region.

The United Nations called for an immediate ceasefire and NATO held emergency talks, while the European Union warned of the risk of a “major open international military confrontation”.

But both Putin and Erdogan appeared keen to scale down the tensions, expressing “serious concern” about the situation in their telephone talks today, the Kremlin said.

Room for dialogue

The incident saw the highest single death toll inflicted on the Turkish army since it first intervened in Syria in 2016, bringing the total number the country’s troops killed in Idlib this month to 53.

Turkey said it retaliated by hitting more than 200 regime targets in drone and artillery bombardments.

The reprisals killed 20 Syrian soldiers, according to a monitoring group, but there was no immediate confirmation from Damascus.

Adding to the tensions, Syria said that two of its warships were travelling through the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul in plain sight of the city.

turkey-syria Funeral prayers are held for one of the Turkish soldiers killed in Syria last night Source: AP/PA Images

But after Putin and Erdogan’s call, the Kremlin said that a Turkey-Russia summit may be on the cards.

“There is always room for dialogue,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“The conversation was detailed and devoted to the necessity to do everything” to implement a largely ineffective ceasefire deal agreed in 2018 between the two countries for Idlib.

Ethnic cleansing

Lavrov said that Russia was ready to help improve the security of Turkish troops in Syria, after the defence ministry said the soldiers who had been killed were among “terrorist groups” and had not disclosed their presence.

The UN has repeatedly warned that the fighting in Idlib could potentially create the most serious humanitarian crisis since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011.

But Russian vetoes, often backed by China, have chronically crippled UN action.

Turkey repeated its call for the international community to establish a no-fly zone over Idlib, where regime forces have clawed back chunks of the region since December, forcing close to one million people to flee their homes and shelters.

Erdogan’s communications director Fahrettin Altun tweeted that Assad was “conducting ethnic cleansing” to drive millions out of Idlib, but said that Turkey does not have the resources to take in more refugees.

The country has already taken in around four million Syrian refugees and is wary of further arrivals as popular discontent about their presence mounts.

But Turkey’s neighbours took swift action after Ankara threatened to go back on a deal with the EU and open the way for refugees to go to Europe.

“We will no longer keep the doors closed for refugees who want to go to Europe,” a Turkish official said.

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Barbed wire on army trucks

In response, Bulgaria and Greece said they were tightening border security as groups of migrants moved westwards across Turkey.

Greek border guards blocked hundreds of migrants from entering the country at the Kastanies border crossing in the northeast of the country, as army trucks loaded with barbed wire raced past.

turkey-syria-migrants Migrants walk to the Turkey-Greece border in Pazarkule in Turkey Source: AP/PA Images

The EU called on Turkey to uphold its side of the 2016 migrant pact which was aimed at stemming the flow of refugees and migrants landing on Greek shores as concern over the refugee crisis peaked.

It also voiced deep alarm about the situation in Syria after Thursday’s killings.

“There is a risk of sliding into a major open international military confrontation,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said.

“It is also causing unbearable humanitarian suffering and putting civilians in danger.”

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had called for an immediate ceasefire.

“Without urgent action, the risk of even greater escalation grows by the hour,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

Turkey’s NATO allies the US and France stood by the country today, with the US State Department calling for “an immediate end to this despicable offensive by the Assad regime, Russia and Iranian-backed forces”.

In a phone call, Trump and Erdogan agreed that the Syrian regime, Russia, and the Iranian regime “must halt their offensive before more innocent civilians are killed and displaced,” the White House said.

- © AFP 2020

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