REYHANLI/AMMAN: Turkey shot down a Syrian government warplane on Tuesday over northwest Syria, where fighting has intensified in recent days, bringing Turkish and Russian forces close to direct conflict in the battle over the last swathe of Syria still held by rebels.
It was the third Syrian warplane Turkey has shot down since Sunday in an escalating campaign against President Bashar al Assad’s forces. Nato-member Turkey supports the rebels, while Assad relies on his superpower ally Russia.
With more than a million refugees amassing since December on the Turkish border, the battle for Syria’s Idlib province has brought what the United Nations fears might be the worst humanitarian crisis of the nine-year-old Syrian civil war.
“This relief operation has been overwhelmed. There needs to be more of everything. The first thing is money,” UN Under-secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock told reporters at a trans-shipment point for supplies in southern Turkey.
Fighting was raging north of the strategic crossroads town of Saraqeb, recaptured on Monday by Syrian troops, one of several times the town, which controls access to Idlib city and Aleppo, has changed hands in recent weeks.
Syrian state media said the army was now combing the town and had dealt heavy blows to fighters still holed up in hideouts on its outskirts. A state television correspondent said Turkey was firing artillery to halt the government advance.
Rebels said the government was aided by thousands of Iranian-backed Lebanese and Iraqi militiamen brought from other areas to help storm the town after two days of failed attempts.
A Syrian general who has defected to the opposition, Ahmad Rahhal, said a Russian announcement on Monday that it had deployed military police in Saraqeb was aimed at blocking Turkey from trying to help rebels reclaim the town.
Turkey has sent thousands of troops and armoured vehicles into northern Syria over the past month to fight back against Assad. Last week, a Syrian air strike killed at least 34 Turkish soldiers in the deadliest attack on the Turkish army in decades.
Moscow, which has anti-aircraft missiles in Syria, has since warned Turkey that it cannot guarantee the safety of Turkish planes in Syrian skies.
The Turkish Defence Ministry said that its forces had shot down a Syrian L-39 ground attack jet. — Reuters