Turkish, Syrian forces exchange heavy fire for 2nd time in as many weeks
Hostilities occur as a Russian delegation arrived in Ankara for talks aimed at a lasting ceasefire
Turkey said it hit back at Syrian government forces on Monday, after "intense" Syrian shelling killed five of its soldiers and wounded five others in Syria's northern Idlib province.
The fighting in Idlib led to the collapse of a fragile ceasefire that was brokered by Turkey and Russia in 2018. Turkey supports the Syrian rebels, while Russia has heavily backed the Syrian government's campaign to retake the area that is the last rebel stronghold in Syria.
The exchange of fire came even as a Russian delegation arrived in the Turkish capital of Ankara for a second round of talks to discuss the fighting in neighbouring Syria. Eight Turkish military and civilian personnel and 13 Syrian soldiers were killed in a similar clash in the province last week.
A Turkish defence ministry statement said Turkish artillery immediately responded to the attack, destroying targets.
"Our fire support vehicles immediately fired on the targets with intensity and the necessary response was given," the ministry said.
The opposition monitoring group the Syrian Observatory reported that six Turkish soldiers were killed and seven were wounded when Syrian government forces shelled the Taftanaz airbase in Idlib on Monday. It added that four Syrian rebels were also killed in the shelling.
An airstrike in a nearby rebel-held region, meanwhile, killed nine people including children, opposition activists said.
Syrian advance leading to massive displacement
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces, backed by Russian air cover, have been advancing into the last rebel-held areas of Idlib and the nearby Aleppo area, seizing dozens of towns and sparking a large-scale humanitarian crisis. The United Nations said on Monday nearly 700,000 civilians have been displaced as a result of the Syrian government offensive that began in early December.
The UN "remains deeply alarmed about the safety and protection of over three million civilians in Idlib and surrounding areas, over half of whom are internally displaced, as reports of airstrikes and shellings continue in Syria," UN deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq said in New York.
At least 49 civilians were killed between Feb. 1-5, with at least 186 civilians killed in January, he said.
Most of the displaced are living in open-air shelters and temporary homes in rain, snow and freezing temperatures near the Turkish border. Half of the displaced are believed to be children.
Food, shelter, water and sanitation, hygiene, health, education and protection assistance are all urgent priorities, Haq said, with the humanitarian community seeking $336 million US to help 800,000 people in northwestern Syria for six months.
Turkey sent hundreds of military vehicles and troops into Idlib province in the past week. The build up and the continued government advances sparked a rare clash on Feb. 3 between Turkish and Syrian soldiers that killed eight Turkish military personnel and 13 Syrian troops. Turkey has warned Syria to retreat to the ceasefire lines that were agreed to in 2018.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkish and Russian delegations exchanged proposals over the situation in Idlib during a first meeting in Ankara on Saturday. On Monday, the Russian team returned to Ankara from a visit to Jordan for further discussions, he said.
"If a compromise had been reached there would have been no need for today's meeting," Cavusoglu told reporters. He said the Turkish and Russian leaders could step in if no compromise is reached.
Syria's military has vowed to keep up its campaign.
The early morning airstrike on the village of Ibbin in Aleppo province killed nine people, including six children, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, and the Step news agency, an activist collective. At least 10 people were also wounded in the airstrike.
The Syrian government's campaign appears to be aimed at securing a strategic highway in rebel-controlled territory for now, rather than seizing the entire province and its densely populated capital, Idlib.
The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media released a map of the area of fighting showing that Syrian troops only have 15 kilometres left from seizing full control of the strategic highway, know as M5. The highway links the national capital of Damascus with the country's north, which has for years been divided between government and opposition forces.
Meanwhile, a car bomb exploded Monday in a Syrian town controlled by Turkey-backed opposition fighters, killing at least four people and wounding 15 others, Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency reported.
The attack was the latest in a series of explosions in Turkish-controlled regions that have killed and wounded scores of people. Turkey has blamed the attacks on the Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the People's Protection Units.
The bomb went off on a main street in the town of Afrin, which Turkey took control of following a military incursion in 2018, Anadolu reported. It said some of the wounded were in serious condition, adding that the death toll was likely to rise.
The Turkish offensive has aimed at pushing Kurdish fighters away from the border. Those Kurdish fighters had been key U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish fighters terrorists linked to a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.