ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — At least four Turkish soldiers were killed and nine others were wounded in “intensive shelling” on Monday by Syrian government forces in northwestern Syria, Turkey’ said. A Syrian war monitor said six Syrian troops were killed as well in the shelling.
The exchange came hours after a large Turkish military convoy entered the province of Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in the country. It is also likely to increase tensions between the two neighboring countries as such direct clashes have been rare.
Turkey’s National Defense Ministry said the shelling in Idlib took place despite prior notification of the coordinates of the Turkish forces that were sent to the province as reinforcements. It said Turkish forces responded to the attack.
The incident comes amid a Syrian government offensive into the last rebel-held territory, located in Idlib and parts of the nearby Aleppo region. Turkish troops are deployed in some of those areas to monitor an earlier cease-fire that has since collapsed.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring group with activists around the country, said the exchange occurred near the town of Saraqeb, which Syrian troops have marching toward in recent days.
Relations between Turkey and Syria have deteriorated sharply since Syria’s civil war began in 2011. Syria accuses Turkey of undermining its security by allowing thousands of foreign fighters to come battle the Syrian army. Idlib province is currently dominated by al-Qaeda-linked militants.
Government forces captured the key town of Maaret al-Numan from the rebels last Wednesday, and have now set their sights on Sarqeb. A strategic highway that links Damascus with northern Syria passes through both towns and government forces aim to reopen it. The highway has been closed since 2012.
The province of Idlib is home to some 3 million people, many of them displaced from other parts of Syria in earlier bouts of violence. The United Nations has estimated that about 390,000 Syrians have been displaced there over the past two months — 315,000 in December and 75,000 in January.
Turkey already hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees, and the current wave of violence in Idlib has raised concerns of a new surge in displaced civilians fleeing toward the Turkish border.
Reporting by Suzan Fraser; Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.
Image: In this frame grab from video taken on Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020, people ride their motorcycles next to a Turkey Armed Forces convoy is seen at the northern town of Sarmada, in Idlib province, Syria. A large Turkish military convoy moved into the rebel-held areas of northwest Syria on Sunday, witnesses on the ground said, adding it appeared to be heading towards the south of Idlib province. (AP Photo/APTN)