ANKARA // Turkey’s army blamed the Syrian government for an air strike on Thursday in northern Syria that killed three Turkish soldiers – the first time Ankara has accused Damascus of killing its troops since launching a military incursion three months ago.
The incident came on the first anniversary of Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian military jet on the Turkish-Syrian border.
That led to a seven-month crisis in relations between Turkey and Russia, an ally of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad that has provided military support to Damascus.
The Turkish army said Thursday’s strike took place at 3.30am. It did not indicate the location, but local media said it took place in the Al Bab region.
“In the air strike assessed to have been by Syrian regime forces, three of our heroic soldiers were killed and 10 soldiers wounded, one seriously,” the Turkish armed forces said in an online statement.
The injured soldiers were taken to hospitals in the southeastern cities of Kilis and Gaziantep, close to the Syrian border, Turkey’s official news agency, Anadolu, said.
Turkish media had earlier blamed the attack on ISIL.
Adding to the confusion, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based opposition monitoring group, also said it was an “attack by IS”.
Despite this, Turkish prime minister Binali Yildirim insisted that the army’s statement was “still valid”.
He said it was evident that “some are not happy with Turkey’s fight against Daesh”, without indicating who this might be.
Mr Yildirim vowed that the attacks would be “given a response” and would not diminish the military’s determination to remove “terrorists” in the region.
The head of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, warned that the incident could drag the country “into a very dangerous process” and called for the government to act with “common sense”.
The prime minister’s office slapped a broadcasting ban on coverage of the strike an hour after the military’s statement, Turkey’s broadcast watchdog said
In August, the Turkish military launched an operation with tanks and air power to support Syrian opposition fighters seeking to retake territory from ISIL in northern Syria.
Ankara-backed rebels comprise several brigades rather than one organised force, according to experts.
Hundreds of Turkish soldiers are taking part in the operation, which Mr Erdogan said on Tuesday was pushing forward with its aim of taking Al Bab from ISIL.
The operation has also targeted Syrian Kurdish militia, whom Ankara views as linked to its outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The PKK is designated a terror group by the United States and European Union but not by the United Nations.
“After that (Al Bab), we will go towards Manbij” to remove elements from the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Forces militia (YPG), Mr Erdogan said.
Kurdish-led forces recaptured Manbij from ISIL in August but Turkey has called for them to leave what it emphasises is an Arab majority town.
Since the offensive began, the rebels have captured the ISIL stronghold of Jarabulus, cleared ISIL from Al Rai and retaken the symbolically important town of Dabiq without much resistance.
The latest deaths bring to at least 15 the number of Turkish soldiers killed since Ankara began its operation in northern Syria.
Most were killed by ISIL but one was killed in an attack blamed on the YPG.
Amid a rapprochement with Russia, Turkey has largely been tight-lipped as Mr Al Assad’s Moscow-backed forces press an offensive to recapture the entire city of Aleppo, which is divided between government and rebel control.
The Syrian government last week resumed its drive to retake the city’s east, where more than 250,000 civilians have been under siege for months, with dwindling food and fuel supplies.
On Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said dozens of civilians had tried to flee but were forced back by gunfire.
* Agence France-Presse