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MIDEAST >Turkey, Russia in new row over Syria, Iraq

ANKARA / MOSCOW

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Turkey and Russia became involved in a new row over the other’s actions in Syria and Iraq on May 31. 

Turkey accused Russia of conducting air strikes in the rebel-held city of Idlib that killed 60 people, prompting a Russian denial and a counter demand that Turkey withdraw its troops from Iraq. 

The Turkish Foreign Ministry said on May 31 that heavy air strikes reported to have been carried out by Russian jets on a hospital and a mosque in Idlib had killed more than 60 civilians and injured around 200 people. 

“It is clear that the Russian Federation, which claims to advocate a political solution and the cessation of hostilities agreement, is blatantly disregarding the very principles it purports to uphold,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website on May 31. 

The ministry also called on the international community to act swiftly against what it called the indefensible crimes of the Russian and Syrian administration. 

“We expect the international community to deliver on its commitments without further delay in the face of these crimes committed by the regime and the Russian Federation which cannot be justified vis-à-vis history and our collective conscience,” it read. 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Russian air strikes pounded Idlib, a short drive from the Turkish border and an al-Qaeda-held city in northwestern Syria, overnight, killing 23 civilians, but Moscow denied it was responsible.  

The observatory said dozens of civilians were also wounded in the raids on Idlib, which has been held by the al-Nusra Front since March last year.

But the Russian Defense Ministry denied its aircraft had carried out any strikes on the city.

“Russian aviation did not carry out any military operations, still less air strikes, in Idlib province,” military spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in a statement, according to AFP. 

Al-Nusra is not party to a Russian- and U.S.-brokered cease-fire that went into force on Feb. 27 between Moscow-backed government forces and Washington-backed non-jihadist rebels.

The observatory said five children were among those killed in the strikes, which hit several residential areas and near a hospital and a public garden.

It says it determines whether strikes were carried out by Syrian, Russian or U.S.-led coalition aircraft based on the location of the raids, flight patterns and the types of planes and munitions involved.

After Ankara accused Russia of the deadly airstrikes in Idlib, Russia demanded that Turkey withdraw its troops from Iraq, the RIA news agency quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying on May 31. 

“This [keeping troops in Iraq] is an absolutely unacceptable position,” it cited Lavrov as saying. 

“In principle, I believe that what the Turks are doing deserves far greater public attention on the part of our Western partners,” he said. 

Meanwhile, U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have seized ground, 12 villages in the northwest of Raqqa, from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the observatory said May 31, as Iraqi forces faced tough resistance from ISIL May 31 while attempting to enter the center of Fallujah one day after launching an offensive in the urban areas of the city.

“The SDF has captured 12 villages... northwest of Raqqa in the past 36 hours,” the observatory’s Abdel Rahman told AFP.

Rahman said the villages lie 80 kilometers or more from Raqqa itself but that the jihadists’ de facto Syria capital was not the immediate goal.

He said the target of the offensive was the town of Tabqa and its adjacent dam on the Euphrates River, which lie some 40 kilometers upstream.

ISIL fighters halted an Iraqi army assault on Fallujah with a counter-attack at its southern gates on May 31, while the United Nations warned of peril for civilians trapped in the city and use by militants as human shields.

A week after Baghdad announced the start of the assault, its troops advanced in large numbers into the city limits for the first time on May 30, pouring into rural territory on its southern outskirts but stopping short of the main built-up area.

In an offensive aimed at ISIL’s northern hub of Mosul, Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces wrapped up an operation on May 30 after recapturing nine villages, a statement said.

The Kurdistan Region Security Council said the operation launched before dawn on May 29 “had achieved its key objectives,” according to AFP. 

The KRSC statement listed nine villages that had been occupied by ISIL since the summer of 2014 and were previously mainly inhabited by northern Iraq’s Kakai and Shabak minorities.

The operation involved around 5,500 peshmerga fighters backed by U.S.-led coalition air strikes and reconquered an area of 120 square kilometers.

May/31/2016

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