Russia intervenes to stop Syrian army, rebels fighting near key town of al-Bab
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Russia has intervened to halt a clash between Syrian government forces and Turkey-backed Syrian rebels near the strategic northern town of al-Bab, which both sides are hoping to capture from the Islamic State (IS) group.
Rebel officials said Thursday’s clash took place in a village southwest of al-Bab. An official in a military alliance fighting in support of the Syrian government, which is backed by Russia and Iran, confirmed the fighting had taken place.
"The Russians intervened to control the situation," said the military source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Two rebel officials accused the government forces of provoking the incident. One of them said the government forces had moved towards their positions in tanks.
"Rebels shot to warn them not to get any closer, but the tank responded and a clash erupted," said the first rebel official.
"Later on Russia intervened to calm down the situation," he added. "This whole incident felt like a test."
A second rebel official, a commander in the al-Bab area, added: "They opened fire. Fire was returned."
The clashes came as Russian air strikes accidentally killed three Turkish soldiers on Thursday in northern Syria. It was not immediately clear whether the confrontation described by the sources had taken place in the same area as the air strike.
The Kremlin said on Thursday that Russian President Vladimir Putin had called Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and expressed his condolences over the air strike, blaming the incident on poor coordination between Moscow and Ankara.
Geopolitical battle for al-Bab
The incident in al-Bab underlined the risk of the parallel offensives igniting new fighting between the Moscow-backed Syrian government and its rebel enemies, supported by Ankara.
Turkey and its rebel allies have carved out a de facto buffer zone in northern Syria in territory captured from the IS group since August in their "Euphrates Shield" operation.
They have been battling to capture al-Bab since December, hoping to prevent its capture by a third party in the conflict: Syrian Kurdish forces, who are allied with Kurdish insurgents in Turkey.
The Syrian army meanwhile mounted its own, rapid advance towards the city in the last few weeks, advancing to within a few kilometres of its southern outskirts.
Russia and Turkey have backed opposing sides in the Syrian conflict war but recently started cooperating, brokering a truce between government forces and rebels and working together to try to revive peace talks.
With the UN planning to convene peace talks in Geneva on Feb. 20, hopes for success hinge on the intentions of the three powers closest to the conflict - Turkey, Russia and Iran - who together pledged to guarantee the tenuous cease-fire.
And nowhere will their intentions crystallize more clearly than in al-Bab, where each side has a stake -Turkey fighting alongside the Syrian rebels, and Russia and Iran backing the Syrian government and allied Shiite militias.
The outcome in al-Bab - whether it is ultimately taken by the government or the rebels, and whether the front between the two sides stabilizes or dissolves into all-out warfare - is likely set the direction of future talks and any settlement.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AP)