Turkey hit targets in northern Syria, responding to shelling by Syrian government forces that killed at least six Turkish soldiers, the Turkish president said Monday. A Syrian war monitor said 13 Syrian troops were also killed.
The exchange, which came hours after a large Turkish military convoy entered the northwestern province of Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria, is likely to further increase tensions between the two neighboring countries as such direct clashes have been rare.
Speaking to reporters before departing for a visit to Ukraine, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said initial information shows some 30-35 Syrian soldiers were "neutralized in operation" involving F-16 warplanes on some 40 targets.
"We have responded in kind to these attacks and will continue to do so, whether it is with our artillery or mortars. We are determined to continue our operations for the security of our country, people and our brothers in Idlib," he told reporters in Istanbul.
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"Those who question our determination will soon understand they made a mistake," Erdogan added.
At least six Turkish soldiers were killed and nine others were wounded in "intensive shelling" on Monday, Ankara's Defense Ministry said.
Russia said that the Turkish military came under fire from Syrian government forces because Russia had not been warned about Turkey's operations in Syria's northwest Idlib region, the Tass news agency cited Russia's Defence Ministry as saying.
Turkey's National Defense Ministry said the shelling in Syria's Idlib province took place despite prior notification of the coordinates of the Turkish forces that were sent to the province as reinforcements.
The incident comes amid a Syrian government offensive into the country's last rebel stronghold, located in Idlib and parts of the nearby Aleppo region. 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.
Turkish troops are deployed in some of those rebel-held areas to monitor an earlier cease-fire that was agreed to but that has since collapsed.
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.
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-Qaida-linked militants.