This photo provided by the activist-operated Thiqa News Agency, shows part of a Turkish military convoy heading toward the town of Khan Sheikhoun, a rebel-held northwestern town that's part of a government offensive on the country's last rebel stronghold, in Idlib province, Syria, Monday, Aug. 19, 2019. A Turkish military convoy carrying ammunition crossed into northern Syria Monday and moved south through rebel-held areas before it was stopped by airstrikes that struck near the highway where the convoy was moving, opposition activists said. (Thiqa News Agency via AP)

Turkey says airstrikes target Turkish army convoy in Syria

August 19, 2019 - 6:08 am

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Airstrikes targeted a Turkish army convoy inside Syria on Monday killing 3 civilians and wounding 12 others, the Turkish Defense Ministry said, but there was no word on Turkish casualties.

The ministry said the convoy was attacked while heading to a Turkish observation post in the rebel-held stronghold of Idlib, where Syrian troops have been on the offensive since late April.

However, Syria's Foreign Ministry said the convoy of armored vehicles was delivering ammunition to a major rebel-held town, Khan Sheikhoun, which lies on the front line of fighting along the southern edge of the enclave. The town is a stronghold of the al-Qaida-linked militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the most powerful group in the rebel-held areas.

The Turkish move into Idlib appears to be a message by Ankara that it will not allow Syrian forces to capture Khan Sheikhoun. Syrian government forces entered its outskirts earlier Monday. The town's fall would also cut the highway linking Idlib to northern parts of Hama province, home to one of Turkey's 12 observation posts on the edge of Idlib province.

It was not immediately clear whether Syrian government or Russian warplanes had struck near the convoy, but the development marked a sharp escalation in tensions in Idlib.

The Turkish Defense Ministry's brief statement did not provide further details but "strongly condemned" the airstrikes, adding that they were "against existing agreements as well as our cooperation and dialogue with Russian."

The strikes hit near the highway where the convoy was traveling, Syrian activists said.

Turkey backs the rebels who have been in control of the region since 2012, while Russia backs Syrian President Bashar Assad's government, which has vowed to take back Idlib. Turkey has 12 observation posts in and on the edges of Idlib province.

Turkey's private DHA news agency said Syrian government planes targeted the route of a Turkish military convoy carrying reinforcement vehicles and personnel. It said the convoy was heading toward two Turkish observation posts in the region when it came under Syrian aircraft fire. 

The report said the convoy could not proceed because the route between Maaret al Numan and Khan Sheikhoun was targeted, and sheltered at a safe location. The agency did not report any casualties.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said airstrikes believed to be Russian struck near the highway and forced the nearly 25-vehicle Turkish convoy to stop.

Mazen al-Shami, an opposition activist based in Idlib, also said that warplanes struck areas near where the Turkish convoy was moving. The Sham Network, an activist collective, posted photos of the Turkish convoy — a mushroom of smoke, apparently from the airstrike, could be seen in the distance.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry called the convoy's incursion a "flagrant Turkish intervention," saying it had reached Saraqeb, a town north of Khan Sheikoun early on Monday.

Syrian government troops meanwhile reached the western outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun earlier in the day. The pro-government Al-Watan online and the Observatory reported that Syrian troops have entered Khan Sheikhoun from the northwest.

The ministry said "this hostile behavior of the Turkish regime" wouldn't affect Syrian troops' push into Khan Sheikhoun.

Syrian troops have been on the offensive in Idlib and its surroundings since April 30. The region is home to some 3 million people, many of them displaced in other battles around the war-torn country. The latest round of fighting over the past month has displaced some 450,000 people.

Khan Sheikhoun was the scene of a chemical attack on April 4, 2017 that killed 89 people.

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Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.