ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s president said Tuesday his country won’t allow Syrian forces to gain additional territory in a northern Syrian province, Turkish media reported, a day after clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces killed soldiers on both sides.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comments came as Syrian forces reached the western gate of the rebel stronghold of Saraqeb in Idlib province in the north, while the U.N. announced that more than half a million people have fled their homes since Dec. 1, because of the offensive.
“At the moment, Syria is trying to gain territory by forcing the innocent and poor people toward our border,” private NTV television quoted Erdogan as telling a group of journalists late Monday. “We won’t give Syria the opportunity to gain territory.”
Eight Turkish citizens were killed in an exchange of shelling with Syrian government forces in Idlib on Monday.
The assault on the Turkish troops came amid a Syrian government offensive that has been advancing since December into the country’s last rebel stronghold, which spans Idlib province and parts of the nearby Aleppo region. Turkish troops are deployed in some of those rebel-held areas to monitor an earlier cease-fire that has since collapsed.
On Tuesday, Syrian government forces were advancing north under the cover of airstrikes reaching areas that have been held by insurgents for eight years. The bombardment forced more people to flee for safety in areas close to the Turkish border.
“Since the first of December, in just 2 months, more than 520,000 people have been displaced from their homes, the vast majority of them being women and children,” said Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“There are no safe places in Idlib, bombs fall everywhere and anywhere even those fleeing the front line areas are not safe and there is just a sea of people moving in all directions,” he said.
Laerke added that in 10 days starting Jan. 20, the U.N. Human Rights Office verified incidents in which at least 83 civilians, including 20 women and 33 children, were killed and dozens of other civilians were wounded airstrikes and ground-based attacks.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said that in recent weeks, Syrian troops have captured more than 60 towns, villages and hamlets as they try to open a highway linking the capital Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest. Rebels have closed the highway in Idlib since 2012 and Saraqeb is the last major rebel-held town in their way.
On Monday, Turkish artillery targeted Syrian government forces in northern Idlib province, responding to shelling that killed seven Turkish soldiers and a Turkish civilian. A Syrian war monitor said 13 Syrian troops were killed in the clash.
The deadly exchange of fire in Idlib increased tensions between the neighboring countries and threatened to drive a wedge between Russia and Turkey, which have sought to coordinate their actions in Syria.
Earlier on Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara and Moscow were trying to keep peace efforts for Syria alive. He renewed a call on Russia to “rein in” Syrian government forces and reiterated Turkey’s determination to retaliate against any future Syrian attack on its troops.
“The Astana and Sochi peace processes have not been completely destroyed but have lately started to suffer and to lose importance,” Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara, referring to Russian-Turkish peace initiatives that have also involved Iran.
He said Turkish officials were in constant contact with Russian counterparts in order “to keep the Astana and Sochi processes alive, to strengthen them, and to arrive at a political solution.”
Cavusoglu, who held a telephone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hours after the Turkey-Syria clash, added: “The regime’s aggressiveness has to be stopped immediately. That was the message I gave Lavrov yesterday.”
Cavusoglu dismissed claims by Russia that it cannot fully control the Syrian government and said the attack came despite a prior notification by Turkey of its troops’ coordinates in Idlib. Russia insisted Turkey failed to notify the Russian military about troop movements overnight.
Meanwhile, funerals were being held across Turkey for the Turkish servicemen that were killed. The deaths markeed one of the highest single-day tolls for Turkish troops in Syria. The country has lost scores of military personnel in the Syrian war.
Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Geneva and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.