Russia and Syrian regime carry out air strikes in Idlib leading to fresh casualties, even as Ankara dispatches more reinforcements to counter regime incursions in ceasefire zone, a war monitor and activists say.
Russia and Syrian regime carried out air strikes in the Idlib de-escalation zone, northwestern Syria, killing at least 15 civilians, a Syrian civil defence group announced on Thursday, as Turkey sent more reinforcements into the region, setting up new positions in an attempt to stop a regime offensive.
The White Helmets civil defence group said 15 civilians were killed after air strikes targeted Idlib's city centre and villages.
Syrian regime forces were also locked in clashes with militants and allied rebels in a key highway town in northwest Syria, a monitor said, despite Turkey warning pro-regime militants to back off.
"Fighting is ongoing in the south of the town of Saraqeb," war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Ankara sent in reinforcements north of the town of Saraqeb overnight, a move that came after the Syrian regime targeted Turkish observation posts killing seven Turkish soldiers and a Turkish civilian member of the military on Monday.
Ankara said it targeted more than 50 regime positions eliminating over 70 regime personnel in retaliatory attacks.
In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry announced that Russian "specialists" have been killed in a northern Syrian province alongside Turkish servicemen, without saying when the incident occurred. The ministry blamed "terrorists" for the deaths, saying that the attacks in Idlib province intensified in January.
Moscow and Ankara are on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war – Russia is the main backer of Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad's forces while Turkey supports rebels fighting his regime.
Syrian regime troops have been advancing since December into the country’s last rebel stronghold, which spans across the Idlib province and parts of nearby Aleppo region.
Turkish troops are deployed in some of those rebel-held areas to monitor a ceasefire that has been continuously violated by the regime.
Russian delegation to visit Turkey
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), an opposition war monitoring group, said Syrian warplanes on Thursday attacked a military air base in the village of Taftanaz where Turkish troops deployed recently.
The observatory and Syrian regime-run TV said that regime forces have laid a siege on the town of Saraqeb, which sits on the intersection of two major highways, one linking the Syrian capital of Damascus to the north, and the other connecting the country’s west and east.
Turkish leaders have repeatedly called on Russia to "rein in" Syrian regime forces, a demand to which Moscow responded by expressing concerns over growing militant activity in volatile Idlib.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated the notion on Thursday, saying that both Russia and Turkey each have "their own sets of concerns". The concentration of militant and rebel groups in Idlib and their "continuing activity" was Russia’s main issue, he said.
Peskov refused to say how many Russians were killed in Idlib but said the Kremlin doesn't rule out a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to discuss the situation in Syria.
Turkey repeated its demand on Thursday, asking Russia to end Syrian regime offensive in Idlib.
"We expect Russia to stop the regime as soon as possible," Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in the Azerbaijani capital Baku.
Cavusoglu said Turkey and Russia were closely coordinating after the clashes, adding that a delegation from Russia was due to visit Turkey for further talks.
"Our target on the ground in Idlib is not Russia," he said.
"Who carried out the attack there? It is the regime. Who attacked our soldiers? It's the regime ... Who harassed our observation posts? It is the regime."
He said President Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Putin, could meet "if needed".
"We should continue working together with Russia. If we are to solve problems there, we will solve them together," added Cavusoglu.
Turkey has yet to comment on clashes at Saraqeb, but Cavusoglu said it would not allow "aggression" by Assad's forces.
"Of course there is a limit to our patience. After we had eight martyrs, we retaliated ... if the regime keeps on its aggression, we will not stop there," he said.
Pro-Iran fighters killed
Meanwhile, Israeli air strikes killed 12 pro-Iran fighters in Syria on Thursday, war monitor SOHR said, the latest in a spate of raids Israel has said targeted Iranian ambitions to develop a military presence on its doorstep.
Israel has pledged to prevent its main enemy from entrenching itself militarily in Syria, where it is backing Assad's regime alongside Russia and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
The pre-dawn raids killed seven foreign fighters in the Kisweh area south of Damascus, SOHR said.
Iranian and pro-Iran foreign fighters were present in the area, the Britain-based war monitor said, but the nationality of the dead was not immediately clear.
Five Syrian militants of a pro-Iranian group were also killed in the Ezra area of the southern province of Daraa, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.
An Israeli army spokesman declined to comment on the strikes when contacted by AFP news agency.
Syrian regime forces have been advancing since December into the country's last rebel stronghold, which spans across the Idlib province and parts of nearby Aleppo region.
Idlib has been a stronghold of opposition and anti-regime armed groups since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011.
It is currently home to some four million civilians, including hundreds of thousands displaced in recent years by regime forces throughout the war-weary country.
Syria's war has killed more than 400,000 people, mostly civilians, according to the UN, and has displaced millions.