ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s president spoke with two European leaders by phone Friday and called for an end to a Syrian government offensive on the last rebel stronghold in the country that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s joint telephone call with the heads of France and Germany came amid mounting tensions between Turkey and Russia, which are backing opposing sides in Syria’s civil war.
On Friday, Russian warplanes struck rebel-held areas in northwestern Syria as insurgents and government forces exchanged artillery and mortar fire in other parts of Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold in the country, opposition activists said.
The violence came a day after two Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike in Idlib after an attack by Ankara-backed opposition forces that targeted Syrian government troops. The deaths came after Erdogan threatened to expand his nation’s involvement in Syria if another one of his troops were hurt.
The Turkish leader told French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that “the Syrian regime and its backers’ aggression in Idlib must be stopped,” according to a statement from Erdogan’s office.
Erdogan also emphasized the need for “strong support and concrete action” to halt the unfolding humanitarian crisis, his office said.
It followed a similar call by Merkel and Macron to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, during which they proposed urgent talks with Erdogan to ease tensions.
Erdogan said later Friday that he will hold a telephone conversation with Putin in the afternoon to discuss the situation in Idlib. “The result of this call will determine our position,” Erdogan said.
“At this point, there can be no question of (our) withdrawal as long as the regime’s oppression of the people of Idlib continues,” he said. “That’s the only way we can achieve a cease-fire.”
Meanwhile, Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, accompanied by military commanders, traveled to the Turkish-Syrian border to inspect troops, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.
A Russian-backed government offensive on Idlib and parts of Aleppo province have led to the displacement of more than 900,000 people, half of them children, since Dec. 1, according to the U.N. It has also upset a fragile cooperation between Ankara and Moscow, which back opposing sides of the Syria war.
On Friday, Oleg Zhuravlyov, the head of the Russian military’s Center for Reconciliation in Syria, denied that “hundreds of thousands of peaceful residents of the (Idlib) province” were being forced to the border with Turkey.
“There are no verifiable photo or video materials or other evidence that would confirm the statements about around one million refugees from the Idlib de-escalation zone moving toward the Syrian-Turkish border,” he said.
The Center urged Turkey to “take all necessary measures to ensure voluntary and safe passage of residents of Idlib’s eastern and southern parts to areas controlled by the Syrian government.”
Russian officials have said they hold Turkey responsible for the collapse of a cease-fire deal in Idlib, saying Ankara had not held up its end to rein in militants who continued attacking Syrian and Russian targets.
“We’re talking about the Syrian military fighting terrorist groups in Idlib,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “These terrorist groups carry out acts of aggression towards the Syrian army and need to be neutralized.”
Tension in the region has been escalating in recent weeks as Turkey sent thousands of soldiers into Syria in a show of force.
At least 15 Turkish soldiers have been killed in Syria this month amid the offensive by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces aimed at recapturing remaining opposition-held areas in the region.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Russian airstrikes near the rebel strongholds of Atareb, Ariha and Qmenas. It added that on the southern edge of Idlib, Turkish troops and rebels exchanged shelling with Syrian government forces.
Akram al-Ahmad, a Turkey-based Syrian opposition activist who heads a monitoring group called the Syrian Press Center, said Russian bombardment struck the rebel-held towns of Sarmin and Atareb.
Al-Ahmad and the Observatory said Turkey sent more troops into Idlib overnight.
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Daria Litvinova in Moscow contributed to this report.