Turkish troops and Syria rebels enter IS-held town

BEIRUT: Turkish troops and Syrian rebels on Saturday entered the IS-held town of Al Bab in northern Syria, as government forces moved closer to the militant bastion, a monitor said. Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency quoted military sources as saying one Turkish soldier was killed and another wounded in clashes with IS fighters in Al Bab. Turkish forces and allied rebels have for weeks pressed an operation code-named Euphrates Shield to drive the militants from the flashpoint town.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Turkish forces and allied militias entered Al Bab from the west and then took full control of its western suburbs after fierce clashes with the militants.
The clashes coincided with “Turkish shelling and intensive air strikes” on Al Bab, the Britain-based monitor said.
Al Bab is the militant group’s last stronghold in the northern province of Aleppo and is also being targeted by regime forces.
While Turkish-led forces have been advancing from the north, east and west, Syrian government troops are attacking from the south.
On Monday, Syrian troops severed a road leading into the town from the south and by Friday they were just 1.5 kilometres from the southern outskirts of Al Bab.
Turkey began an unprecedented campaign inside Syria in August, targeting both IS and Kurdish militia.
After initial rapid progress, the campaign has been mired since December in the deadly fight for Al Bab.
Turkey’s Dogan news agency says 66 Turkish soldiers have been killed in the campaign since it started, mostly in IS attacks.
And on Thursday, three Turkish soldiers were killed when a Russian air strike accidentally hit their position in a strike targeting IS fighters in Al Bab.
Moscow said the incident was an accident and is under investigation.
Opposition delegates for talks
The Syrian opposition was to announce on Saturday its delegates for the next round of UN-based peace talks in Geneva planned for later this month, the main opposition umbrella group said.
The choice of opposition delegates has been subject to disagreement and the UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has said it would choose the opposition delegates if they could not agree, “to make sure that it can be as inclusive as possible.”
The Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC), Syria’s main opposition body which includes political and armed groups, has criticised Mistura’s comment as “unacceptable”.
HNC spokesman Salim al Muslit told Arabic news channel Arabiya al Hadath on Saturday that following meetings in Riyadh, Syrian opposition officials would present the 20-member delegation they have chosen to attend the talks.
The HNC represented the opposition in peace talks last year, but was not invited to the Kazakh capital Astana, where indirect talks between government and rebel delegates were held last month.  — AFP/Reuters