Turkey vows to keep fighting in Syria after 16 troops killed
ANKARA - Turkey vowed Thursday to battle "terror" in Syria, a day after 16 Turkish soldiers were killed by jihadists in a battle for a flashpoint town -- Ankara's biggest loss so far in its unprecedented incursion.
The soldiers were killed in a succession of attacks by Islamic State group (IS) jihadists around the Syrian town of Al-Bab on Wednesday that included three suicide car bombings.
The heavy toll showed the intensifying battle for the town, which Turkish forces have been seeking to capture for weeks in the biggest test of their four-month incursion into Syria.
Turkish troops entered Syria on August 24 in support of pro-Ankara Syrian rebels, with the aim of ousting IS jihadists as well as Kurdish militia from the border area.
The campaign -- dubbed Euphrates Shield -- was launched as Turkey has been hit by the bloodiest attacks in its modern history, blamed on jihadists and Kurdish militants.
"Yes, maybe we will have to lay martyrs to rest," President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara, confirming the death toll had risen to 16 from 14.
"But we are determined to preserve their memory and protect what they left us and continue this struggle," he said.
Turkey, he said, "is engaged in its most serious struggle since the war of independence" that led to the creation of the modern state in 1923.
"This struggle is not an ordinary one," he said.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said this "is a great battle in the name of Turkey's unity", adding: "We will always guard this unity to the end in the face of terror."
Turkish television showed distraught relatives of the dead dealing with the news and putting Turkish flags outside their homes in a traditional gesture of respect.
- 'Difficult fight' -
The earlier stages of Turkey's campaign proceeded with lightning speed and the border town of Jarabulus was taken on the first day of the offensive.
But the army has suffered increasing casualties in the fight for Al-Bab -- 25 kilometres (15 miles) from the border -- with some three dozen soldiers believed to have been killed so far.
Defence Minister Fikri Isik told parliament on Thursday that 1,005 IS jihadists and 299 fighters affiliated to the Kurdish Peoples' Protection Units (YPG) had been killed in the operation so far.
Ankara considers the YPG a terror group, even though it works together with the United States as an ally in the fight against IS. It was not immediately possible to verify the figures.
The army said the latest clashes erupted around a weapons depot that had been used by IS for the last two years. Thirty-three soldiers were also wounded, six of them seriously.
Al-Bab lies 35 kilometres (22 miles) northeast of Aleppo, which is about to be recaptured by forces of President Bashar al-Assad in the biggest defeat for rebels in the civil war.
Turkey has been a key backer of the rebels and insists the ouster of Assad is the only way to bring peace to Syria.
But Ankara has stayed out of the most recent battle for Aleppo and worked with Assad's key ally Russia to broker evacuations from the city.
Some have suggested there has been a secret agreement between Turkey and Russia to give Moscow a free hand in Aleppo in exchange for staying out of the Turkish operation.
But a Turkish foreign ministry official this week denied that there had been any "bargain" struck between the two countries.
The official acknowledged that the Al-Bab operation was "difficult" but would continue, adding that afterwards the forces would seek to assert control over Manbij, northeast of the town.