Turkey takes aim at al Qaeda militants in Syria

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BEIRUT — Turkish forces shelled areas along its border with Syria’s northwestern province Sunday, an area dominated by al Qaeda-linked militants, a day after Turkey’s president said an operation in the area was under way to enforce a “de-escalation” zone.

Mustafa Sejari, spokesman for a Turkey-backed Syrian armed group, said Turkish artillery responded with shells after coming under attack from al Qaeda-linked fighters across the border. Turkey’s private Dogan news agency reported that Turkey fired seven howitzer rounds into Idlib on Sunday.

The tension came a day after Turkey’s president announced his country has launched a “serious” operation in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province with Turkey-backed Syrian opposition forces, following international efforts to calm the fighting in the war-torn country.

Sejari said the operation aims to deploy Turkish-backed opposition fighters in the province currently dominated by al Qaeda-linked militants.

“So far our forces have not entered Idlib,” Sejari said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Turkish shells fell near a displaced people’s camp along the border, causing a panic but no casualties. The Observatory said the shelling was followed by brief clashes and the lobbing of missiles as tension continued. The Observatory also said al Qaeda-linked militants have deployed new fighters to the area where the brief clashes occurred, in Kafr Lusin village, along the border.

In announcing the operation, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned his country would not permit a “terror corridor” along its border, referring to extremists groups as well as U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militants that Turkey considers terrorists. The official Turkish news agency Anadolu said the new deployment would serve as a “wall” between Kurdish-controlled Afrin in northwestern Aleppo and Idlib province.

The plan to enforce a de-escalation zone in Idlib involves deploying Turkish special forces and observation points, according to Sejari, from the Turkish-backed Al-Mutasim Brigades. He said the plan also is to foil “foreign projects” that aim to occupy the north of Syria under the pretext of fighting terrorism, in an apparent reference to the U.S-backed Kurdish forces.

Last year, the Turkish army launched a cross-border operation with Syrian opposition fighters to clear an area along its border of the Islamic State group and prevent the dominant Kurdish group from forming a contiguous entity from northeast to northwest Syria. There are no known plans by the Kurdish forces to take on al Qaeda-linked militants in Idlib.

Also, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said late Saturday that Turkish observers would deploy in safe areas.

Sarah El Deeb is an Associated Press writer.



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