Syrian troops capture east Aleppo neighborhood from rebels
BEIRUT (AP) — A Syrian official blasted Turkey Saturday saying it is to blame for the death of its soldiers because it sent them to Syria, as the Syrian army said troops have captured a neighborhood in the northern city of Aleppo days after the government resumed its offensive on the besieged rebel-held eastern part of the city.
Syria's deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad's comments were the first by a Syrian official since Thursday when three Turkish soldiers were killed in northern Syria in what the Turkish military said was a pre-dawn Syrian airstrike. The account was disputed by Syrian activists who said the soldiers were killed by a suicide attack by the Islamic State group the day before.
Since then two more soldiers have been killed over the past two days in fighting near the town of al-Bab, an IS stronghold.
"Turkish policies are responsible for the tension in Turkish-Syrian relations," Mekdad told the Lebanon-based Pan-Arab Al-Mayadeen TV. He added that Turkey took part in sending foreign fighters into Syria and armed them "in order to destroy Syria and Syrians."
Mekdad did not confirm or deny whether Syrian aircraft were behind the attack that killed the three Turkish soldiers but said that "if the Turks want to complain they should complain to themselves. What happened was inside the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic."
Since Syria's crisis began in March 2011, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has been a strong supporter of Syrian rebels trying to remove President Bashar Assad from power.
Turkey sent ground troops into northern Syria in August to help Syrian opposition fighters battle both IS and U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces, which Ankara sees as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency in southeastern Turkey.
The Turkish troops are not fighting Syrian government forces, and have not been attacked by them, though Damascus has strongly objected to the military intervention.
On Saturday, Turkey's state-run news agency said a Turkish soldier was killed and three wounded in an attack during an anti-IS operation in north Syria, raising to five the number of Turkish troops killed in Syria this week. It said the dead and wounded soldiers were brought back to Turkey.
The rising Turkish-Syrian tension came as Syrian troops captured Aleppo's Hanano district days after government forces and their allies launched an offensive involving deadly street battles in the area.
The army said troops "have seized full control" of the eastern district in Syria's largest city.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops now control most of the district, adding that Hanano was the first Aleppo neighborhood to fall into the hands of rebels in 2012.
Syrian state media said rebel shelling of west Aleppo killed three people and wounded 15 adding that some 150 residents of east Aleppo have been able to leave the besieged area of 275,000 people on Saturday.
The Observatory said that since the government offensive resumed on east Aleppo on Nov. 15, 357 people have been killed in the city and nearby villages and towns.
The Observatory also reported that deals have been reached to evacuate fighters from the Tal and Khan al-Shih suburbs of the capital Damascus. It said hundreds of fighters from both suburbs will be evacuated to the northwestern province of Idlib, a rebel stronghold.
The two areas have been subjected to government attacks for weeks.
Associated Press writers Cinar Kiper in Istanbul and Albert Aji in Damascus contributed to this report.