Turkey starting serious operation in Idlib: Erdogan

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In this handout photograph released by The Turkish President's Office on Friday, President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he addresses a joint press conference with President of Venezuela Nicolas Maduro after attending an inter-delegation meeting at the Presidential Complex in Ankara. — AFP

ISTANBUL/BEIRUT — Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday "a serious operation" was beginning in Syria's Idlib and a Syrian rebel official said his group was preparing to enter the area with the backing of Turkish forces.

Idlib and surrounding areas of northwest Syria are among the largest bastions for rebel groups fighting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, but have increasingly fallen under the sway of militant factions.

"Today there's a serious operation in Idlib and it will continue, because we have to extend a hand to our brothers in Idlib and to our brothers who arrived in Idlib," Erdogan said.

"Now this step has been taken, and it is underway," he said, adding that Turkish forces were not yet involved at that it was a rebel operation so far.

Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups in the Euphrates Shield campaign that Ankara launched in northern Syria last year are ready to cross into northwest Syria from Turkey, Mustafa Sejari, a senior official in the Liwa Al-Mutasem group said.

"The Free Syrian Army with support from Turkish troops is in full readiness to enter the area but until this moment there is no movement," he said.

Erdogan said last month that Turkey would deploy troops in Syria's northwest Idlib province as part of a so-called de-escalation agreement brokered by Russia in August.

Another FSA rebel in the Euphrates Shield campaign told Reuters he believed an incursion into northwest Syria was imminent.

The Hamza Brigade, also part of Euphrates Shield, posted video online of what it said was a convoy of its forces heading for Idlib.

Residents near the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey in Syria sent Reuters photographs of what they said was a section of the frontier wall being removed by the Turkish authorities.

"We are taking new steps to ensure security in Idlib. Today, a very serious operation is ongoing in Idlib and this will continue," Erdogan said in a televised speech in the western city of Afyon.

Erdogan said that many Syrians had fled to Idlib from the neighbouring Aleppo province, which was rocked by heavy fighting last year, and Turkey was not going to let them down.

"We will absolutely not allow the creation of a terror corridor along our borders," said Erdogan in his speech.

The president later told reporters the operation was led by Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels and that the Turkish army was not yet operating there.

Media reports have pointed to a heavy deployment of military hardware and personnel by the Turkish army to its southern border area in recent weeks.

"At the moment the Free Syrian Army is operating there (inside Syria), our troops are not there yet," Erdogan said, quoted by the Dogan news agency.

Turkey earlier this year wrapped up its months-long Euphrates Shield operation against jihadists and Kurdish militia in the northern Aleppo province that involved both the Turkish army and Syrian rebels.

Asked whether the Idlib operation would be similar to Euphrates Shield, Erdogan replied: "When you enter the boxing ring you don't count your punches." — Agencies


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