28 Feb 2020 12:03

Russian aircraft were not engaged in combat in Idlib area where Turkish servicemen were present - Defense Ministry

MOSCOW. Feb 28 (Interfax) - Russian military aircraft did not engage in combat in the vicinity of Syria's Behun, where Turkish servicemen were present, on Thursday, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement to the press.

"Aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces did not engage in combat in the Behun vicinity," the ministry said.

Turkish servicemen, whose whereabouts were not duly reported by Ankara, came under fire of the Syrian government forces. The Turkish units were operating within the ranks of militants attacking the Syrian army in Idlib, it said.

Formations of the Hayat Tahrir ash-Sham terrorist group (banned in Russia) stationed in the Idlib de-escalation area attempted to launch a large-scale offensive on the positions of Syrian government forces on February 27, the ministry said.

"Seeking to avert security threats to Turkish observation posts and forces deployed in the Idlib de-escalation area in the course of fire returned by Syrian government forces, the Russian Center for Reconciliation maintains permanent contact with the Turkish coordination center in Idlib," it said.

"In the past 24 hours, representatives of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides kept requesting from Turkish colleagues and confirming the coordinates of all Turkish armed units stationed close to the areas of terrorist warfare," the ministry said.

"Turkish servicemen in the ranks of terrorist formations came under attack of Syrian forces in the vicinity of Behun on February 27," it said.

"Notably, according to the coordinates sent by the Turkish side to the Russian Reconciliation Center, there were no Turkish units stationed in the Behun area and they were not supposed to be there," the ministry said.

"As soon as the information about Turkish casualties was received, the Russian side took comprehensive measures to fully stop the firing by the Syrian forces and to ensure safe evacuation of the dead and injured Turkish servicemen to the Turkish territory," it said.

It was reported earlier that 33 Turkish servicemen had been killed as a result of strikes delivered by the Syrian Air Force. Turkish forces retaliated with air and ground strikes on Syrian government forces' positions in the small hours of Friday.

Following reports on Turkish casualties, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held an urgent meeting on security issues, the Anadolu news agency said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced a meeting of the North Atlantic Council convened at the request of Turkey on the basis of Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty for consultations on the Syria situation, the NATO press service said on Friday.

Turkey deployed 12 observation posts in the Idlib de-escalation area. Some of those posts appeared to be behind the lines of the Syrian government forces after the latter launched the offensive on terrorist positions.

The Russian military said on Thursday evening that Turkey was supporting militants operating in the Idlib de-escalation area with artillery and drone strikes.

"In violation of the Sochi Agreements, the Turkish side continues to support operations of illegal armed units with artillery fire and reconnaissance and attack unmanned aerial vehicles in the Idlib de-escalation area for the purpose of strikes on Syrian government forces," head of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides in Syria Rear Adm. Oleg Zhuravlyov said at a press briefing on Thursday.

Zhuravlyov said that Syrian air defense had downed a Turkish attack drone which violated Syrian airspace and aimed to attack government forces on February 25.

The television channel Rossiya 24 (VGTRK) said in a report from Idlib on Thursday that the militants and "Turkish specialists" were trying to down Russian and Syrian plans by means of MANPADS. According to the channel, Russian and Syrian aircraft were actively using decoy flares to protect themselves against MANPADS fire.

On Thursday morning, a Russian military source denied Turkish media reports, which said that the militants had taken over Serakab in the Syrian Idlib province.

Moscow and Ankara have differences of opinion regarding the Idlib de-escalation area, where tensions have been flaring lately.

Turkey accused Syrian forces and their allies of attacking civilian sites and positions of Turkish servicemen in Idlib and demanded that Damascus pull out its forces from the de-escalation area. The Turkish leadership threatened to begin a military operation in Idlib.

The Russian military, for its part, said that the Syrian army was reacting to the attacks of militants in the Idlib area.