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Turkey launches strikes on Syria after six soldiers are killed

Shelling by Assad's forces kills at least six Turkish soldiers, with reprisal attacks killing several Syrian troops
A Turkish military convoy of tanks and armoured vehicles passes through the Syrian town of Dana, east of the Turkish-Syrian border in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province (AFP)

Turkey and Syria traded attacks near their shared border on Monday, in the biggest escalation between the two neighbours since the Syrian war erupted nearly nine years ago.

According to the Turkish defence ministry, at least six Turkish soldiers were killed and nine wounded, after Syrian government forces launched an artillery attack on the northwest Syrian province of Idlib.

Within hours, Turkey answered with an assault of its own, bombing around 46 Syrian military positions in the area, according to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an independent monitoring agency based in the UK, placed the death toll at 13 Syrian soldiers.

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"We have responded in kind to these attacks and will continue to do so, whether it is with our artillery or mortars," Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul.

He said that initial indications showed between 30-35 Syrians were "neutralised", a figure that was later raised to 76 by Defence Minister Hulusi Akar.

Erdogan called on Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's chief ally, to not "stand in its way" of Turkey's retaliation. 

"We are determined to continue our operations for the security of our country, people and our brothers in Idlib," Ergodan said.

"Those who question our determination will soon understand they made a mistake."

He added that Ankara had notified Russia that it planned to move troops to parts of Idlib in a bid to prevent and discourage government attacks in the area.

"We told the Russians that they aren't the target... if needed I will call [President Vladimir Putin] and point out the seriousness of this issue," he said.

A young Syrian mourns over the body of a relative killed in an air strike in Sarmeen in the eastern Idlib province on 2 February 2020 (MEE/Ali Haj Suleiman)
A young Syrian mourns over the body of a relative killed in an air strike in Sarmeen in the eastern Idlib province on 2 February 2020 (MEE/Ali Haj Suleiman)

Fahrettin Altun, Turkey's communications director, tweeted in a thread: "Our brave soldiers are conducting security and humanitarian missions inside Syria in line with our agreements with Russia.

"If Russia is unable to control the Assad regime from targeting us, we will not hesitate to take actions against any threat, just as we did today in Idlib."

Russia intervened in Syria's long-running war four years ago in support of Assad, while neighbouring Turkey and some Gulf states supported rebel groups that rose up against him. 

Assad's forces have been making rapid gains in Idlib, with the Syrian president, who has been in power for 19 years, repeatedly vowing to reclaim the rebel-held territory. 

The latest escalation comes only a day after Turkey moved a large military convoy around the strategic Idlib town of Saraqeb as Assad steps up his campaign to take control of the rebel-held areas.

A punishing bombardment campaign has seen hundreds of thousands flee towards the Turkish border since an uptick in fighting began in December.

Last week, civil defence officials told Middle East Eye that suspected Russian missiles had targeted a hospital and bakery in the town of Ariha. 

Russia denied the strike and said that its planes were not in the area when the attack took place. 

The conflict, now approaching its ninth year, has devastated much of the country. About half a million people have been killed and millions have been forced to live as refugees.