Turkey strikes IS as Syria border tensions flare

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Aug 23 2016 07:02 PM | Updated as of Aug 23 2016 07:49 PM

Turkey on Tuesday pounded Islamic State (IS) jihadists in Syria with new artillery strikes as expectations grew of a major Ankara-backed offensive against the jihadists after a deadly suicide bombing on its soil.

With tensions flaring on the Turkey-Syria border following the bombing in the nearby city of Gaziantep that left 54 people dead, Turkish howitzers on Monday hit jihadist and Kurdish rebel targets across the frontier.

Turkey has been shaken by one of the bloodiest years in its modern history, with a string of attacks by IS jihadists and Kurdish militants and the botched July 15 coup.

In new fighting on Tuesday, two mortar rounds fired from an IS-controlled area in Syria hit the southeastern Turkish town of Karkamis, Turkish television reported.

Turkish artillery responded by hitting four IS positions around the jihadist-controlled Syrian town of Jarablus with around 60 shells, it said.

The shelling came after as activists said hundreds of Ankara-backed rebels were preparing an offensive against the IS group to seize control of Jarablus.

But this could potentially put them on a collision course with the militia of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) which Ankara vehemently opposes and also has its eyes on Jarablus after seizing the strategic Manbij area in northern Syria from IS.

Rami Abdul Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the "Turkish shelling in Syria aimed to prevent the advance of troops backed by Kurds from Manbij towards Jarablus".

Abdulkadir Selvi, a well-connected columnist for the Hurriyet daily, said the Turkey-backed offensive "could begin at any moment".

The plan has not been confirmed by the Turkish authorities but Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Monday that the border area had to be "totally cleansed" of jihadists.

- 'New page on Syria' -

The movements have come at a critical juncture for Turkey in Syria's five-and-a-half-year war, with signs growing it is on the verge of a landmark policy shift.

Ankara has always called for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad as the key to ending the conflict, putting Turkey at odds with his main supporters Iran and Russia.

However Prime Minister Binali Yildirim at the weekend for the first time acknowledged that Assad was one of the "actors" in Syria and may need to stay on as part of a transition.

On Monday, he urged world powers including Iran, Russia and the United States to join together to rapidly open a "new page" in the Syria crisis.

"It is essential that all the parties come together to stop the bloodshed in Syria," said Yildirim, whose naming as prime minister earlier this year was seen as heralding a less confrontational Turkish foreign policy.

But he also warned it was "unacceptable" for Kurds to seek to establish any kind of separate entity in northern Syria.

Turkey regards PYD as a terror group, although Washington, Ankara's ally in the fight against IS, sees its militias -- the powerful Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) -- as having an important role in the fight.

US Vice President Joe Biden is due to visit Ankara Wednesday for talks with Turkey's leadership, and Syria is set to be a crucial issue.

- 'The last song' -

The attack in Gaziantep on a Kurdish wedding party for a young couple has horrified the country, with the majority of the 54 victims aged under 18 and including children as young as four.

But there is confusion who was behind the attack, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan initially saying the suicide bomber was a child aged 12-14 acting on the orders of IS.

However Yildirim on Monday said Turkey still had no clue who carried out the attack and said all "rumours" over the age and affiliation of the bomber should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Hurriyet said the authorities still suspected IS was behind the attack as the main line of inquiry, with investigators taking DNA samples in Gaziantep from the families of possible IS suspects.

Reports said the previous assertions by the authorities had been based on eyewitness statements rather than concrete scientific evidence.

One guest at the wedding party, Emine Ayhan, lost four of her five children in the blast, Turkish media reported.

"To finish off the evening the young guys wanted one last song. It was in the middle of this song that the bomb went off," Hurriyet quoted her as saying.

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