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Putin, Erdogan agree to Syria ceasefire after upsurge in fighting, migrant wave

Turkey and Russia agreed a ceasefire deal on Thursday in Syria's Idlib region, their two leaders said after lengthy talks in Moscow to contain a conflict which has displaced nearly a million people in three months.

Turkey in the past week has turned away from previous deal with EU to accommodate Syrian migrants

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greet each other before talks Thursday at the Kremlin in Moscow. The two leaders were engaged in talks aimed at avoiding pitting their nations against each other during hostilities in northwestern Syria. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/The Associated Press)

Turkey and Russia agreed a ceasefire deal on Thursday in Syria's Idlib region, their two leaders said after lengthy talks in Moscow to contain a conflict which has displaced nearly a million people in three months.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, standing next to his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan, said he hoped their agreement would lead to a halt of military action in Syria's last rebel stronghold in the far northwest of the country.

"I express hope that these agreements will serve as a good basis for a cessation of military activity in the Idlib de-escalation zone [and] stop the suffering of the peaceful population and the growing humanitarian crisis," Putin said.

Erdogan told reporters the truce would come into effect at midnight on Thursday.

"We will work together to supply aid for the Syrians in need," he said, adding that Turkey retained the right "to respond to all [Syrian] regime attacks in the field."

Previous deals have collapsed

Russia and Turkey back opposing sides in Syria's nine-year conflict, with Moscow supporting President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey backing some rebel groups. They have in recent years reached several ceasefire deals in Idlib, but they collapsed.

Russian airstrikes have propelled a push by Assad's forces to retake the last large rebel-held territory in the northwest that has sparked what the United Nations says may be the worst humanitarian crisis in a nine-year war that has driven millions from their homes and killed hundreds of thousands.

A still image taken from a video obtained by Reuters and shot earlier this week shows Syrian army soldiers advancing on the town of Kfar Nabl in Idlib province. (Reuters TV)

The Russian military has, however, repeatedly played down any talk of a refugee crisis and accused Turkey of violating international law by pouring enough troops into Idlib to make up a mechanized division.

Turkey, which has the second largest army in the transatlantic NATO alliance, has funnelled troops and equipment into the region in recent weeks to resist the Syrian government advance and avoid a wave of refugees over its southern border.

Russia also raced to reinforce its troops in Syria by sea and air before the Putin-Erdogan talks.

Putin began what became six hours of talks by offering condolences over the recent killing of 34 Turkish troops in an airstrike last week, saying the Syrian army had not known of their location. The intensified fighting has killed some 60 Turkish troops since early February.

The Kremlin said the two leaders spoke for three hours on their own before being joined by their officials.

Since the end of February, thousands of migrants have headed to points along the Greece border, as Turkey has turned away from an agreement struck with the European Union in 2016. (CBC)

The two leaders also agreed to establish a secure corridor near the M4 highway, which runs east to west through Idlib, and hold joint patrols along the road from March 15.

In a joint statement read out by the Turkish and Russian foreign ministers, the two sides said the corridor would stretch six kilometres to the north and six km to the south of the M4 – effectively advancing Russia's presence further north into Idlib.

They said their defence ministers would agree on the parameters of the corridor within seven days.

Ahead of the talks, at least 16 civilians were killed when Russian airstrikes hit a gathering of internally displaced people near the town of Maarat Misrin in Idlib, according to civil defence workers helping clear the rubble and search for survivors.

Russia denies targeting civilians.

Two witnesses also reported seeing more Turkish military reinforcements deploying into Idlib, and Russia's RIA news agency said rebels had resumed shelling the strategic town of Saraqeb in Idlib where Russian military police are based.

A baby cries as migrants gather next to a river in Edirne, Turkey, near the Turkish-Greek border on Wednesday. Facing a potential wave of nearly a million people fleeing fighting in northern Syria, Turkey has thrown open its borders with Greece to thousands of refugees and other migrants trying to enter Europe. (Darko Bandic/The Associated Press)

The Turkish defence ministry said in the last 24 hours it had destroyed four tanks, five rocket launchers and a dozen military vehicles in artillery and airstrikes.

Greece eager to send migrants back

Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot handle more. To extract more funding and support from Europe over Idlib, Ankara said it would not abide by a 2016 deal in which it stopped migrants crossing into the European Union in return for billions of euros in aid.

Thousands of migrants have made for Greece since Ankara made that declaration, with tear gas being employed Wednesday by authorities at the Kastanies border post.

Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu visited Edirne province bordering Greece on Thursday and announced the deployment of 1,000 special police to the area to halt the pushback of migrants toward its territory.

Soylu, who said on Wednesday that Turkey was preparing a case at the European Court of Human Rights over Greece's treatment of migrants, accused Greek forces of wounding 164 people and pushing back nearly 5,000 into Turkey.

The situation at the Kastanies border crossing was calm on Thursday. Migrants — many of whom are from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as Syria and other Arab nations — huddled in tents and makeshift camps on the Turkish side of the border.

Migrants who arrived in Greece illegally after March 1 will be transferred to the northern city of Serres and deported back to their own countries, Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said late on Wednesday.

"Our aim is to return them to their countries," he told the Athens News Agency.

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