The Latest: 3 Turkish soldiers killed in Afrin operation

BEIRUT/February 03, 2018(AP)(STL.News)— The Latest on the situation in Syria (all times local):

5:45 p.m.

The Turkish military says two of its soldiers have been killed in Syria and a third was killed on the Turkish side of the border in an attack by Syrian Kurdish militiamen.

The military says Saturday’s deaths were related to Turkey’s operation against the Syrian Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin, codenamed Olive Branch. One of the soldiers was killed when a Turkish tank was hit in Afrin.

A total of eight Turkish soldiers and at least 24 allied Syrian opposition fighters have died so far in Ankara’s offensive, which started on Jan. 20.

The Turkish operation aims to clear Afrin of the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the People’s Protection Units or YPG, which Turkey considers to be a terrorist group and an extension of the Kurdish insurgency within its borders.

Ankara also says it is fighting the Islamic State group in the area.

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4:50 p.m.

Syrian opposition activists say rebels have shot down a warplane in the country’s northwest where government forces and their allies are advancing under the cover of intense airstrikes.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the warplane was downed on Saturday afternoon near the rebel-held town of Sarqeb, which Syrian troops have been trying to reach under the cover of Russian airstrikes.

The Observatory’s chief Rami Abdurrahman says it’s possible the warplane could be Russian. He added that the pilot ejected and landed alive on the ground.

The opposition’s Aleppo Media Center says it was a Russian-made SU25 but did not say whether it was Russian. There was no immediate word from Moscow.

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4:30 p.m.

Turkish presidential spokesman says Turkey will not tolerate the presence of a Syrian Kurdish militia “anywhere” along its southern border, hinting that Ankara might expand its military operation underway in the Syrian enclave of Afrin eastward.

The spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said on Saturday that Turkey’s first demand is to see the Syrian Kurdish militia — the People’s Protection Units or YPG — move east of the Euphrates River and leave the town of Manbij, where American troops backing the Syrian Kurdish fighters are stationed.

Turkey launched an incursion into Syria on Jan. 20 and is currently fighting the YPG in the northwestern enclave of Afrin. It considers the YPG a “terrorist group” and an extension of Kurdish rebels inside Turkey.

Kalin called on the United States to “disengage” from the YPG and said Turkey will continue communications with “our American allies to avoid any confrontation.”

Turkey shares a 911-kilometer border with Syria. The YPG controls much of the territory along the border and an uninterrupted strip from Manbij to the Iraqi border.

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2:20 p.m.

A Syrian monitoring group and the media arm of al-Qaida-linked militants are reporting intense airstrikes on a rebel-held stronghold in Syria’s northwest.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported more than 35 airstrikes on Saraqeb since late Friday, adding that many of its residents are fleeing.

The Ibaa News Agency of the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee, said Russian and Syrian warplanes and helicopter gunships have been pounding Saraqeb and Tel Mardeekh village in Idlib province since the early hours of Saturday.

Syrian government forces and their allies pushed into Idlib, an opposition stronghold, inching closer to a key highway that connects Syria’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo.

The U.N. says more than 270,000 have been displaced in Idlib because of the government onslaught since Dec. 15.

By Associated Press, published on STL.NEWS by St. Louis Media, LLC (TM)