Turkey says two Turkish soldiers killed, five wounded in Idlib - live blog

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad supported by Russian aerial bombardment have made major advances in the country’s last major rebel-held enclave of Idlib recently. Thirteen Turkish soldiers were killed this month by Syrian shelling in Idlib and almost one million people have flocked to areas near the Turkish border, fleeing the Syrian government advance on the region.

Turkey started transferring tanks and troops to areas in Idlib seized by Syrian forces since the end of December, Sabah newspaper reported on Thursday.

Sabah said Turkish howitzers had also been shelling Syrian forces to block their further advance. 

Turkish artillery provided cover fire for renewed rebel attacks on the town of Nairab and the strategic crossroads town of Saraqeb, Reuters reported, citing rebels and residents. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported shelling from the Turkish side. 

A Turkish official told Reuters the artillery bombardments did not signal Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had launched a full-scale operation. The lira, under pressure in recent weeks partly due to intensifying hostilities across the border, was trading down 0.3 percent at 6.097 per dollar, little changed from earlier in the day.

The move came after Erdoğan said on Wednesday that a Turkish intervention into the rebel-held enclave could start at any moment, referring to an end-of-February deadline he set for Syrian forces to withdraw from positions beyond Turkish observation posts. 

Turkey informed NATO of its plans for a cross-border operation into Idlib and has requested the alliance enforce a no-fly zone over the region ahead of the offensive, the Independent Turkish reported on Wednesday.

Turkey and Russia have failed to reach a compromise to ease tensions in Idlib during talks held in the last two weeks. The two countries agreed to establish a demilitarised zone in the province in 2018, but Russia says Turkey failed to remove jihadist fighters from the region.

Russian-backed Syrian government forces launched an offensive in Idlib in April, which has intensified since the beginning of this year. Thirteen Turkish soldiers have been killed by Syrian shelling since the start of the month in Idlib, while 1 million people have fled to the Turkish border to escape the clashes.

21:40 - Macron, Merkel want to meet Putin, Erdoğan amid escalated tensions in Syria's Idlib

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have discussed the situation in Idlib by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the EU summit on Thursday.

The two leaders want to hold talks with Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the matter, AFP said.

19:40 - U.S. military spokesman says Idlib haven for terror groups

Colonel Myles Caggins, a U.S. military spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) said Idlib became a haven for what he called terrorist groups who are a "nuisance, a menace and a threat" to the hundreds of thousands of civilians in Syria.

19:30 - Turkish Defence Minister says Ankara continues dialogue with Moscow amid escalated tensions

Turkey's Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said Ankara continues talks with Moscow to diffuse tensions in Idlib.

"The dialogue between Russia and Turkey continues," Akar said.

"We say that we will provide a ceasefire by deploying our troops or using force against no matter who if necessary. We are committed to this. We have said at every meeting that Russia should use its influence on this issue, and we will continue to say that.," he said.

17:15 - Russia says airstrikes repel rebel offensive against Syrian government in Idlib

Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria said the Russian Air Force launched strikes to repel an offensive by Turkish-backed armed groups against the Syrian army in Idlib.

"At the request of Damascus, Russian Su-24 strike aircraft hit the advancing armed groups, helping Syrian forces to repel the offensive, destroying a tank and six infantry-fighting vehicles, among other hardware," it said.

Meanwhile, Russian Defence Ministry said Turkish forces stopped artillery shelling in Idlib after Moscow contacted Ankara.

16:30 - Macron seeks EU response over attacks on Idlib

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday he would press all 26 other EU member states to condemn the increased attacks against civilians in Idlib.

"I hope that as 27 we can take a strong position on the issue and that we can launch a new initiative at the United Nations-level," Macron said ahead of an EU summit on Friday.

15:30 - Two Turkish soldiers killed, five wounded in Idlib, Turkey says

An air strike targeting Turkish forces in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib killed two Turkish soldiers and wounded five more on Thursday, the Turkish Defence Ministry said on Twitter.

The targets identified are under fire and will continue to be under fire, the ministry said, adding that more than 50 Syrian government forces had been killed in Idlib.