(DAMASCUS, Syria) — Airstrikes halted a Turkish military convoy carrying ammunition after it crossed into northern Syria on Monday, bound for a rebel-held stronghold, opposition activists said.
The strikes hit near the highway where the convoy was moving, the activists added.
It was not immediately clear whether it was Syrian government or Russian warplanes that struck near the convoy but the development marked a sharp escalation in tensions in the northwestern province of Idlib where Syrian troops have been on the offensive for weeks.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry slammed Turkey, saying the convoy consisted of armored vehicles loaded with ammunition and was heading to Khan Sheikhoun, a major rebel-held town in Idlib province, the country’s last rebel stronghold.
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. There was no immediate official word from Turkey, which has 12 observation posts in and on the edge of Idlib province, about a convoy headed to Syria.
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 is a stronghold of al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the most powerful group in the rebel-held areas. The town was the scene of a chemical attack on April 4, 2017 that killed 89 people.
Mroue reported from Beirut.