Five Turkish soldiers have been killed in an attack carried out by Syrian government forces in Syria’s northwest, according to the Turkish defence ministry.
A further five troops were wounded in Monday’s shelling on a military base in Idlib province, the last rebel-held stronghold in the war-torn country.
The “regime’s intense artillery fire targeted our elements sent as reinforcement to the region with an aim to prevent clashes in Idlib, ensure our border security and stop migration and human tragedy”, the ministry said.
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The Turkish military retaliated, it added, “destroying targets”.
Al Jazeera’s Sinem Koseoglu, reporting from the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Syrian side of the border, said the attack targeted the Taftanaz military base, which the Turkish army took over from Syrian military last week to establish a new observation post.
“The latest escalation is seen as the highest escalation that has ever happened between Ankara and Damascus in Syria’s nine-year war,” she said.
“The Turkish armed forces are being hit directly by the Syrian army – and today is a benchmark in this escalation.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Defence Minister Hulusi Akar held an emergency meeting immediately the attack, Turkey’s NTV television reported.
Russian delegation in Ankara
The assault came after a similar attack by the government forces last week killed eight Turkish military personnel, prompting another response by Turkey’s army.
It also happened as a delegation from Russia, the Syrian government’s main ally, is in Ankara for talks on the situation in Idlib. Another round of talks is expected to be held on Monday.
Turkey retaliated against the attack to destroy all enemy targets and avenging our fallen troops.The war criminal, who ordered today’s heinous attack, targeted the entire international community, not just Turkey.
— Fahrettin Altun (@fahrettinaltun) February 10, 2020
Ankara has sent major reinforcements to Idlib, as it tries to stem rapid advances by Syrian government forces backed by Russia.
The Syrian government offensive in Idlib has driven nearly 700,000 people from their homes towards the closed Turkish border, threatening a new humanitarian crisis.
The United Nations said on Monday that nearly 700,000 civilians have been displaced by the latest Syrian government offensive against the rebel-held northwest since early December, including some 100,000 in the past week alone.
David Swanson, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the situation was increasingly dire near the border with Turkey, where more than 400,000 people had already taken shelter from earlier anti-rebel offensives last year.
Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, says it cannot absorb any more and has demanded Damascus pull back in Idlib by the end of the month or face Turkish action.