In this photo taken on Sunday, March 1, 2020, Turkey-backed opposition fighters help a fellow fighter wounded in fighting with Syrian government forces and their allies in Sarmin, south of Idlib, Syria. Fighting on the ground in Idlib continued Monday, with heavy clashes between Syrian government forces and Turkish-backed fighters. (AP Photo)

Syrian, Turkish armies engage in new deadly clashes in Idlib

March 04, 2020 - 8:49 am
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ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Two more Turkish soldiers were killed Wednesday in a Syrian government attack in Syria's northwest, the country's Defense Ministry said, as steady clashes between the two national armies continued to rack up casualties.

Turkey has sent thousands of troops into the area to support Syrian insurgents holed up there, but hasn't been able to stop a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive to retake the Idlib province.

A Syrian opposition war monitor said nine Syrian soldiers were also killed in Turkish drone attacks in the northwestern area.

The Turkish Defense Ministry's statement said the latest Syrian attack on its troops also wounded six soldiers. It did not provide further details.

The assault came as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was scheduled to depart for Moscow, where he says he aims to broker a cease-fire in Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Turkey and Russia are the two main power brokers in Syria and each supports rival sides in the nine-year conflict.

“We expect to reach a shared view of the cause of the current crisis, its consequences and agree on a set of measures to overcome it,” Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said of the upcoming meeting with the Turkish leader.

Russian officials have said they hold Turkey responsible for the collapse of a cease-fire agreement reached in Sochi, Russia in 2018. They say Ankara has failed to honor the deal and rein in militants who continued attacking Syrian and Russian targets.

Earlier on Wednesday, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov assailed Turkey for shielding "terrorists" in Idlib, a statement that reflected Moscow's forceful posture ahead of the Syria talks.

In a statement, Konashenkov said that under the 2018 agreement with Russia, Turkey was obliged to ensure that militants in Idlib pull 15-20 kilometers (9-12 miles) away from the de-escalation zone along with their heavy weapons. Instead, he argued, al-Qaida-linked militants “and other terrorist groups pushed moderate rebels north toward the border with Turkey.”

Konashenkov also assailed the West for turning a blind eye to Turkish military action in Syria "in violation of international law" and treating Turkish threats to destroy Syrian army units as a “legitimate self-defense.”

Syrian opposition activists reported intense clashes near the government-held town of Saraqeb that sits on a major highway linking Syria's two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said Turkish drone attacks near Saraqeb killed nine Syrian soldiers.

The Russian military said in a statement Wednesday that “a group of terrorists” made a failed attempt to detonate ammunition placed next to chemical storage tanks in the western part of Saraqeb two days ago. It claimed that the failed attempt was a bid to blame the Syrian government for launching a chemical attack.

The Russian military said the militants were poisoned when one of the tanks leaked before they could detonate the explosives.

Clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces in northwestern Syria have killed 58 Turkish troops in the past month, including 33 soldiers killed Thursday in a single airstrike.

Also on Wednesday, Syria's Foreign Ministry blasted a visit by U.S. officials to the Turkey-Syria border claiming they “illegally crossed into Syrian territories in Idlib province.” The ministry said Syria “condemns in the strongest terms the American administration's thieves and bandits behavior” in support of insurgents.

U.S. Representative to the United Nations Kelly Craft and U.S. Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey visited the Turkey-Syria border without crossing into Syria on Tuesday. Craft announced the U.S. would provide an additional $108 million in humanitarian assistance for Syrians in response to the crisis.

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Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

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