Turkey on Friday raised the death toll from a Syrian government airstrike on its forces in northwestern Syria the day before to 33 Turkish troops killed. It was the largest death toll for Turkey in a single day since Ankara first intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2016.
The deaths, which came in an attack late Thursday, were a serious escalation in the direct conflict between Turkish and Russia-backed Syrian forces that has been waged since early February. The earlier reported death toll was 29 troops.
Rhami Dogan, the governor of Turkey’s Hatay province bordering Syria’s Idlib region, said 32 wounded troops were being treated in hospitals. Turkey has had 54 soldiers killed in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province since the beginning of February, including the latest fatalities.
Shortly after the attack, U.N. Secretary-General reiterated his call for an immediate cease-fire and expressed serious concern about the risk to civilians from escalating military actions,,“ U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
“Without urgent action, the risk of even greater escalation grows by the hour,” Dujarric said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a six-hour emergency security meeting in Ankara late on Thursday, state-run Anadolu news agency reported. Meanwhile Turkish Foreign Minister Mevult Cavusoglu spoke to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg by telephone.
Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, who plays a senior role in foreign affairs, also spoke to U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien.
The airstrike came after a Russian delegation spent two days in Ankara for talks with Turkish officials on the situation in Idlib, where a Syrian government offensive has sent hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing towards the Turkish border.
The offensive has also engulfed many of the 12 military observation posts Turkey has in Idlib.
Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrians and under a 2016 deal with the European Union agreed to step up efforts to halt the flow of refugees to Europe. Since then Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to “open the gates” in several disputes with European states.
Omer Celik, spokesman for Erdogan’s ruling party, said Turkey was “no longer able to hold refugees” following the Syrian attack — reiterating a standing threat by Ankara.
DHA news agency reported that some 300 Syrian, Iranian, Iraqi, Moroccan and Pakistani refugees were gathering at the border with Greece, while others gathered on beaches facing Greek islands off Turkey’s western coast.
On Friday morning, broadcaster NTV showed images of dozens of people, carrying rucksacks, suitcases and plastic bags, crossing fields towards the Greek frontier.
After the airstrike, angry crowds gathered outside the Russian consulate in Istanbul, Anadolu said. Standing in front of a line of riot police and a water cannon, they chanted “Murderer Russia, murderer Putin.”
The airstrike came after Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters retook a strategic northwestern town from government forces on Thursday, opposition activists said, cutting a key highway just days after the government reopened it for the first time since 2012.
Despite losing the town of Saraqeb, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces made major gains to the south. Assad now controls almost the entire southern part of Idlib province after capturing more than 20 villages Thursday, state media and opposition activists said. It’s part of a weekslong campaign backed by Russian air power into Syria’s last rebel stronghold.
Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and the commanders of Turkey’s army and air force went to the Syrian border Friday.