Turkish forces 'neutralise' 101 Syrian troops in retaliation

Attack follows deaths of five more Turkish soldiers in Idlib province

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Turkish troops “neutralised” 101 Syrian soldiers, Ankara said, in retaliation for the regime killing at least five Turkish soldiers and wounding five more in an attack in Idlib province on Monday.

The ministry said its artillery immediately responded to the attack in the Taftanaz area, where its forces were posted to stem advances by Syrian government forces.

It said three tanks and two cannon were destroyed and a Syrian government helicopter hit.

The exchange came a week after seven Turkish soldiers and a civilian were killed in Idlib, prompting Ankara to send more troops and heavy weaponry into the last contested area of Syria after nine years of civil war.

The latest incident took place as Turkish and Russian officials held a second round of talks in Ankara to discuss the fighting in Idlib, which has uprooted almost 600,000 civilians in the past two months. No statement was issued at the end of the meetings.

Turkey supports some of the armed opposition groups in Idlib, while Russia provides military backing to President Bashar Al Assad’s forces.

The two countries reached a deal for a ceasefire in 2018 under which Turkey set up military observer outposts in the rebel-held province.

Ankara has sent hundreds of tanks, armoured personnel carriers and commandos across the border in response to the siege of some of its outposts by Mr Al Assad’s advancing forces.

The build-up over the weekend included field guns, rocket launchers, ambulances and lorries loaded with munitions, the Turkish state-run Anadolu agency reported on Monday.

Syria’s government is using its military and that of ts allies to try to defeat former Al Qaeda affiliates and Ankara-backed rebels in Idlib and adjacent areas of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week threatened to use force to break the siege of the outposts unless Syrian forces withdraw before the end of February.

At least three of the 12 outposts were confirmed to be cut off by Syrian forces.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar has said that plans are in place in case Syria refuses to comply.

"We on every occasion say 'Do not force us, otherwise our Plan B and Plan C are ready'," he told the Hurriyet newspaper in an interview on Sunday.

“We’re trying to reach a ceasefire and stop the bloodshed.”

The escalation between Ankara and Damascus came as intense bombardment by the regime killed 29 civilians in less than 24 hours.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, said six children were among nine civilians killed early on Monday in raids on the village of Abin Semaan in Aleppo,

Those strikes followed a night of heavy bombardment that killed at least 20 civilians in Idlib and Aleppo, the Observatory said.

About half of Idlib province, along with slivers of Aleppo and Latakia, remain outside government control.

About 50,000 fighters are estimated to be in the pocket, the Observatory reported.