Turkey still in talks with Russia for return of captured Syrian soldiers - defence minister

(Releads with Turkish defence minister’s statement, updates fourth and fifth paragraphs)

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Thursday that Turkey was still negotiating with Moscow for the return of 18 Syrian government soldiers who were captured in northeast Syria on Tuesday to Russian authorities, pro-government Sabah newspaper reported

The Turkish Defence Ministry announced on Tuesday that 18 people suspected of being Syrian government soldiers had been captured near the northeast Syrian town of Ras al Ayn, and that Turkey had contacted Russia about the issue.

The Syrian army last week began taking control of regions along the Turkish border formerly governed by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), after Ankara and Moscow struck a deal to halt Turkey’s military operation against the SDF.

“There are ongoing talks with the Russians about the return of 18 people understood to be members of the Syrian regime’s army,” Akar said, adding that he had received instructions from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the matter. 

The minister said two of the soldiers who had been wounded had received treatment in hospital.

Akar’s statement came after Muharrem Sarıkaya, a columnist for Habertürk news site, reported on Wednesday citing unnamed sources that the 18 soldiers had been returned.

Sarıkaya said the incident showed the problems that might emerge during the implementation of the deal, as Turkish-backed Syrian rebels had trespassed on an operation zone identified by Turkey and Russia around the northeast Syrian town of Tal Tamr and clashed with Syrian government forces.

Russian troops were late to intervene on the clashes, and as a result 18 soldiers were captured by the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army, the columnist said. 

“Intelligence units in Ankara immediately took action and ensured the release of the captured soldiers of the Damascus army,” he said. 

“We will face such incidents many times during this process,” Sarıkaya quoted a Turkish defence official familiar with the matter as saying on Tuesday. 

Turkey and Russia are working to establish a mechanism for joint patrols in a 10-km deep area along a 444-km stretch of the border between Turkey and Syria. 

Turkey aims to establish a safe zone between northeastern Syrian towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al Ayn for the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Turkey. Russia will facilitate security with the Damascus forces in regions to the west and east of the safe zone.