Route out of northwestern Syria to be opened to refugees for 72 hours, officials tell MEE, after 33 Turkish troops killed in attack by pro-Assad forces.
Turkey will open its southwestern border with Syria for 72 hours to allow Syrian refugees fleeing the pro-government forces’ assault free passage to Europe, Turkish official sources have told Middle East Eye.
The decision came after a security meeting chaired by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara late on Thursday after 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in Syria’s Idlib province.
A senior Turkish official said on Thursday that Syrian refugees headed towards Europe would not be stopped either on land or by sea.
The official said that Ankara would order police and border and sea patrols to stand down if they detected any Syrian refugees trying to cross into Europe.
Turkish media reported that hundreds of migrants had walked through northwest Turkey towards its borders with Greece and Bulgaria on Friday. MEE could not independently confirm the reports.
The governor of Hatay province said that the Turkish soldiers were killed in a Syrian government attack in Idlib, an area where forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have been staging an offensive since December.
Since that time, about a million civilians have been displaced towards the Turkish border – more than half of them children – and hundreds have been killed in the onslaught.
Turkey blamed Thursday’s air strike on Syrian government forces, who are backed by Russia.
However, Russia’s defence ministry was cited by the RIA news agency on Friday as saying that the Turkish troops had been hit by artillery fire from Syrian government forces who were trying to repel an offensive by Turkish-backed rebel forces.
Russia is sending two warships equipped with cruise missiles to the Mediterranean Sea towards the Syrian coast, the Interfax news agency cited Russia’s Black Sea fleet as saying on Friday.
Nato ambassadors are meeting in Brussels at Turkey’s request to hold consultations about developments in Syria, the alliance said.
Under article four of Nato’s founding Washington Treaty, any ally can request consultations whenever, in the opinion of any of them, their territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened.
Migrants not allowed through
Turkey’s Demiroren news agency said around 300 migrants, including women and children, had begun heading towards the borders between the two European Union countries and Turkey’s Edirne province at around midnight on Thursday.
Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Moroccans were among those in the group, it said.
It said migrants had also gathered in the western Turkish coastal district of Ayvacik in Canakkale province with the aim of travelling by boat to the Greek island of Lesbos.
Video footage of the migrants broadcast by pro-government Turkish television channels could also not immediately be verified.
Turkish broadcaster NTV showed scores of people walking through fields wearing backpacks and said the refugees had tried to cross the Kapikule border into Bulgaria, but were not allowed through.
It said the same group of migrants had then walked through fields to reach the Pazarkule border crossing into Greece, but it was unclear what happened to them thereafter.
Greece has tightened sea and land borders with Turkey after the overnight developments in Idlib, government sources told Reuters on Friday.
The sources, who declined to be identified, said Athens was also in contact with the European Union and Nato on the matter.
‘Turkey is currently hitting all known regime targets’
The Turkish soldiers’ deaths are the biggest number of fatalities suffered by Ankara’s forces in a single day since it began deploying thousands of troops into Idlib in recent weeks in a bid to halt the military push by Assad’s forces and their allies.
The latest incident means a total of 46 Turkish security personnel have been killed this month in Idlib.
Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s communications director, said in a written statement that the Turkish government had decided in the meeting to retaliate against Assad’s forces by land and by air.
“Turkey is currently hitting all known regime targets. What happened in Rwanda and Bosnia cannot be allowed to be repeated in Idlib,” he said.
Attacks on Turkish forces have caused severe tensions between the Syrian government’s key ally, Russia, and Turkey, which backs certain opposition groups in Idlib.
Erdogan had vowed to launch a military operation to push back Syrian government forces if they did not retreat from a line of Turkish observations posts by the end of February.
The nine-year war in Syria has devastated much of the country. An estimated half a million people have been killed and millions have been forced to live as refugees.
Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, having taken in some 3.7 million Syrians.
Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to open the gates for migrants to travel to Europe.
If it did so, it would reverse a pledge Turkey made to the EU in 2016 and could draw western powers into the standoff over Idlib.