Turkish tanks cross Syrian border to free IS-group held town
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Turkey's state-run news agency says Turkish tanks have crossed into Syria as part of a military operation to free a border town held by the Islamic State (IS) group.
Turkey’s private NTV television said as many as 20 tanks had crossed into Syria, adding that clashes were taking place at the border.
The incursion is Turkey’s first into Syria since February 2015 and its largest military effort yet in the Syrian conflict.
Damascus swiftly condemned the military operation, with Syria’s foreign ministry calling the incursion a breach of its sovereignty, according to state television.
It added that any counter operations inside its borders had to be conducted in coordination with the Syrian government, accusing Ankara of launching the incursion to replace IS group fighters with “other terrorist groups”, in a reference to rebels.
The ground incursion came after the Turkish army fired artillery rounds into the Syrian border town of Jarablus at around 01:00 GMT Wednesday, and Turkish and US warplanes pounded IS group targets with airstrikes as part of the operation, Turkish military sources said.
White and grey plumes of smoke rose from atop hills in northern Syria, Turkey's CNN Turk television showed, in footage broadcast live from the Turkish town of Karkamis across the border from Jarablus. The boom of artillery fire was audible.
"The aim of the operation is to ensure border security and Syria's territorial integrity while supporting the US-led coalition against Islamic State," one military source said.
Turkey to 'cleanse' border of IS militants
Turkey had vowed on Monday to "completely cleanse" IS group militants from its border region after a suicide bomber suspected of links to the group killed 54 people at a Kurdish wedding in southeastern city of Gaziantep.
Turkey is also concerned about the growing influence of Syrian Kurdish militant groups along its border, where they have captured large areas of territory since the start of the Syrian war in 2011. Ankara sees them as tied to the Kurdish militants fighting an insurgency in Turkey.
At least nine mortar shells from Jarablus had landed into the Turkish border town of Karkamis and nearby on Tuesday, forcing many residents to flee the town, a Reuters witness said.
The Syria operation also came as Syrian rebels backed by Turkey had said they were in the final stages of preparing an assault from Turkish territory on Jarablus, aiming to preempt a potential attempt by Syrian Kurdish YPG militia to take it.
Pre-empting Kurdish forces
The Kurdish YPG militia, a critical part of the US-backed campaign against the IS group, took near complete control of Hasaka city on Tuesday. The group already controls swaths of northern Syria where Kurdish groups have established de facto autonomy since the start of the Syria war.
Their growing influence has alarmed Ankara, which is fighting its own insurgency with militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK, who officials blame for an escalation of attacks in the southeast of Turkey.
Ankara is focused on preventing the YPG or its allies building on recent advances against the IS group by capturing Jarablus. The U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces alliance (SDF), including the YPG, captured the city of Manbij, just south of Jarablus, from the IS group earlier this month.
Turkey is still in shock after a failed July coup by rogue soldiers who tried to overthrow President Tayyip Erdogan and the government, killing 240 people and triggering a purge of suspected coup supporters in the army and civil service.
Angered by a perceived lack of Western sympathy over the coup, Turkey has chilled ties with Washington and the European Union while ending a diplomatic row with Russia and proposing more military cooperation with Moscow in fighting the IS group in Syria.
Those growing ties between Ankara and Moscow are worrying Turkey's Western allies.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said this week that northern Syria should not become the domain of one group and that a "secure zone", an internationally policed buffer area Turkey proposed in vain in the past, should be reconsidered.
A Syrian rebel with one of the Turkey-backed groups said the fighters were waiting for the signal to enter Jarablus and a second rebel said around 1,500 fighters were now gathered at a location in Turkey to take part.
(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)