Russia has denied it was responsible for airstrikes that killed dozens of Turkish soldiers on Thursday night in the Syrian province of Idlib, in an incident that has threatened to further escalate Syria’s civil war.
NATO on Friday was holding an emergency meeting at Turkey’s request to discuss the situation in Idlib following the incident in which Turkish officials have said at least 33 Turkish soldiers were killed and almost 40 wounded.
The soldiers were in Idlib to support Syrian rebel groups trying to resist a Russian-backed offensive by the Syrian government.
In response to the deaths, Turkey threatened it will now stop preventing Syrian refugees from crossing into Europe, hoping that the prospect of a fresh migrant crisis might prompt Western countries to intervene to stop the Syrian offensive.
A senior Turkish official briefed reporters on Friday that Turkish border guards and coast guard have been ordered to stand down. “We have decided, effective immediately, not to stop Syrian refugees from reaching Europe by land or sea,” the official, who requested anonymity, told reporters from Reuters and a number of other international news agencies.
Following the announcement, there were reports of hundreds of Syrian refugees preparing to move toward Turkey’s border with Greece and Bulgaria. Turkish media showed video purportedly of people walking through fields near the border in northwestern Turkey and gathering near the coast.
It was unclear that the numbers of people were higher than usual, but Greece nonetheless announced it was temporarily closing its border crossing with Turkey at Kastanies, near Edirne.
Greece’s prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted: “Significant numbers of migrants and refugees have gathered in large groups at the Greek-Turkish land border and have attempted to enter the country illegally. I want to be clear: no illegal entries into Greece will be tolerated. We are increasing our border security.
“Greece does not bear any responsibility for the tragic events in Syria and will not suffer the consequences of decisions taken by others. I have informed the European Union of the situation,” he said in an additional tweet.
The deaths of the Turkish soldiers on Thursday night was the worst loss of life Turkey’s military has suffered since it intervened in Syria in 2016. It was also the most serious incident in the intensifying proxy war between Russia and Turkey in Idlib, where the two countries’ forces are increasingly coming into direct contact.
Intense fighting has been raging for days as Turkey has backed the rebels using artillery and other heavy weaponry, while Russia has conducted airstrikes in support of the Syrian government forces. The strike on Thursday came after the rebels retook the key town of Saraqeb.
Rahmi Dogan, the governor of Hatay province, told the state-run Anadolu news agency that he and other Turkish officials blamed the strikes on the Syrian government.
There had quickly been speculation that the strikes that killed the troops may have been carried out by Russian warplanes. Russia has been conducting the majority of airstrikes in the area in recent days, despite Turkey’s statement that the planes had belonged to the Syrian government.
Russia’s defense ministry on Friday denied that its aircraft had been operating in the area and said the Turkish troops had come under fire from Syrian government forces. The ministry in a statement blamed Turkey for failing to inform Russia of the troops’ location and said they had been mixed in with “terrorists.”
The ministry said that Turkey had informed Russia that “no units of the Turkish armed forces were in the area of the village of Behun and they shouldn’t have been there.”
As soon as Russia became aware of the Turkish casualties it took “exhaustive measures” to have the Syrian government forces ceasefire and allowed Turkey to evacuate its dead and wounded, the ministry said.
You can read the rest of Patrick Reevell’s article at ABCnews.com