Friday, Feb. 17, 2017

Syria, opposition blast Turkey over al-Bab civilian deaths

By By BASSEM MROUE

BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian government and an opposition monitoring group condemned Friday what they call Turkey's "crimes" against the Syrian people in the northern town of al-Bab that is controlled by the Islamic State group, as a top Turkish military official said most of the town is under control of allied opposition fighters.

Turkish troops and allied opposition fighters have been on the offensive in al-Bab for weeks to recapture it from IS, a battle that has killed hundreds of civilians so far. On Feb. 7, the Turkish offensive on the town intensified in an attempt to capture it from the extremists but the push has been slow because of fierce resistance from IS fighters.

The battle has been difficult for Turkish troops who have lost some 65 soldiers since they entered Syria in August, most of them in al-Bab which has been under attack since mid-November.

Turkish forces have been deployed in Syria since August with the aim of clearing a border patch of IS militants and Syrian Kurdish fighters that Ankara considers related to its own Kurdish insurgency.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Turkish shelling and airstrikes have killed 45 people in al-Bab since Wednesday. It said the dead include 14 women and 18 people under the age of 18.

"The crimes committed against civilians in the city of al-Bab are continuing after the killers of civilians have permitted shedding the blood of Syrians," the Observatory said. It added that since the operation against al-Bab and nearby villages began on Nov. 13 some 430 civilians have been killed in the area.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry on Friday condemned what it called Turkey's violations of Syria's sovereignty. The condemnation was expressed in two letters addressed to the U.N. Secretary-General and President of the Security Council.

The IS-linked Aamaq news agency released a video said to be taken in al-Bab showing men, boys and infants being treated for severe wounds inside a clinic.

The video showed a child crying on a hospital bed while, his left arm severed from under the shoulder. Another child suffered from a stomach wound that eventually killed him. A third had a portion of his skull blown off, exposing the top of his head.

The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other reporting by The Associated Press.

The violence in al-Bab came as Turkey's military said the Turkish and U.S. chiefs of staff had "confirmed" the need to fight terror groups in Syria and Iraq, including the Islamic State group and Kurdish militants.

A military statement said Gen. Joe Dunford met with his Turkish counterpart, Gen. Hulusi Akar, on Friday at Incirlik air base, which serves as a base for warplanes of the U.S.-led coalition battling the extremist group. Turkey also carries out airstrikes against bases belonging to Kurdish militants in northern Iraq.

The military statement said Akar told Dunford that Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian fighters had "to a great extent" taken control of the IS-held Syrian town of al Bab.

It made no reference to a possible joint operation to retake the IS stronghold of Raqqa, which Turkey's defense minister said would be discussed.

The Observatory said IS fighters are still in "full control" of al-Bab.

As the fighting in al-Bab area intensified, the Russian military said that its strategic bombers have struck IS positions to the east. The Defense Ministry said in a statement that Tu-95 bombers that flew from their base in Russia launched long-range cruise missiles Friday at IS facilities near the group's main stronghold of Raqqa.

It added that the missiles successfully hit the IS training camps and a control facility of one of the militant units. The ministry said fighter jets from a Russian air base in Syria escorted the bombers.

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Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

2017-02-17 17:32:48 GMT

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