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Middle East

Turkey asks allies for ground offensive in Syria

© Bulent Kilic, AFP | Tanks stationed at a Turkish army position near the Oncupinar crossing gate fire towards the Syria border on February 16, 2016


Latest update : 2016-02-16

Turkey said Tuesday it wanted a ground operation in neighbouring Syria with its international allies, as a UN envoy held talks in Damascus aimed at saving a troubled ceasefire plan.

Tensions escalated over Russia's air war in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with Ankara branding it "vile, cruel and barbaric" and EU President Donald Tusk saying it "leaves little hope" of a solution.

Turkey sees the ouster of Assad as essential to ending a five-year conflict that has killed more than 260,000 people, and is highly critical of Iran and Russia over their support for the Damascus regime.

"We want a ground operation with our international allies," a senior Turkish official told reporters in Istanbul.

"There is not going to be a unilateral military operation from Turkey to Syria," the official said, but added: "Without a ground operation it is impossible to stop the fighting in Syria."

Saudi Arabia, another fierce critic of Assad, has said it is ready to send special forces to Syria to take part in ground operations against the Islamic State (IS) group.

The United Nations said Monday that nearly 50 civilians, including children, had died in the bombings of at least five medical facilities and two schools in northern Syria.

The region around Syria's second city of Aleppo has been the target of a major offensive by Syrian government troops, backed by Russian warplanes, which has sent tens of thousands fleeing to the Turkish border.

Russia denied it had bombed any hospital in Syria, calling such reports "unsubstantiated accusations".

Ceasefire hopes fade

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in Damascus Tuesday to try to keep alive the proposal announced by world powers in Munich early Friday for a "cessation of hostilities" in Syria within a week.

"We have been particularly talking about the issue of humanitarian unhindered access to all besieged areas not only by the government but also by (the) opposition" and IS, De Mistura told reporters afterwards.

He said they would meet again later Tuesday "to address this urgent issue which is as you know related to the wellbeing of all Syrian people and is connected to the very clear discussions and conclusions of the Munich conference."

Video: Saudi Arabia's 'historic' military manoeuvres

Assad on Monday downplayed prospects of a halt in fighting, saying that it would be "difficult" to implement a truce.

"They are saying they want a ceasefire in a week. Who is capable of gathering all the conditions and requirements in a week? No one," Assad said in televised remarks.

Turkey meanwhile shelled Kurdish positions in northern Syria for a fourth straight day Tuesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor.

It said the shells had struck the town of Tal Rifaat which was captured on Monday from mostly Islamist rebels by a Kurdish-Arab coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Turkish media also reported shelling on Kurdish positions around the rebel stronghold of Azaz.

Diplomatic tensions flare

Ankara accuses the Kurdish forces of ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that has waged a decades-long insurgency against Turkey.

Turkey fears the Kurds will be able to create a contiguous Kurdish territory just across the border in northern Syria.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Tuesday accused Kurdish fighters of being "Russia's legion working as mercenaries" with a priority aim of harming Turkey's interests.

Moscow says its military intervention has targeted IS and other "terrorists", but activists say Russia's raids have caused disproportionately high civilian casualties.

Russia's air strikes have allowed government forces to press a major operation that has virtually encircled rebels in eastern Aleppo city, as well as pushing them from much of the region to the north.

"Those vile, cruel and barbaric planes have made close to 8,000 sorties since September 30 without any discrimination between civilians and soldiers, or children and the elderly," Davutoglu said in parliament.

Moscow meanwhile called Turkey's shelling in Syria "provocative" and said it supported raising the issue at the UN Security Council.

A US State Department spokesperson urged Turkey and Russia to avoid any further escalation.

"It is important that the Russians and Turks speak directly, and take measures to prevent escalation," the spokesperson told AFP.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu expressed "uneasiness" about France's call over the weekend for an immediate halt to the shelling of Kurdish forces, a Turkish diplomatic source said.

Speaking on Monday with his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault by telephone, Cavusoglu said Turkey was fighting against "elements of terror" in Syria.


Date created : 2016-02-16


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