Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan at a conference. File photo
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday that he had asked President Vladimir Putin for Russia to step aside in Syria and leave Turkey to deal with Syrian government forces alone, after 34 Turkish soldiers were killed this week.
Government forces, backed by Russian air power, have waged a major assault to capture the northwest province of Idlib, part of the last remaining territory held by rebels backed by Turkey.
Syrian and Russian warplanes on Saturday kept up air strikes on the Idlib city of Saraqeb, the Syrian Observatory war monitor reported. The strategic city sits on a key international roadway and has been a flashpoint of fighting in recent days.
Turkish strikes using drones and smart missiles late on Friday that hit Hezbollah headquarters near Saraqeb killed nine of its members and wounded 30 in one of the bloodiest attacks on the Iran-backed group in Syria, according to a commander in the regional alliance backing Damascus.
The Syrian Observatory said 48 pro-Damascus troops had been killed by Turkish strikes in the past 24 hours.
With diplomacy sponsored by Ankara and Moscow to ease tensions in tatters, Turkey has come closer than ever to confrontation with Russia on the battlefield.
Speaking in Istanbul, Erdogan said he had told Putin in a phone call to stand aside and let Turkey "do what is necessary" with the Syrian government. He said Turkey does not intend to leave Syria right now.
"We did not go there because we were invited by (Syrian President Bashar Al Assad). We went there because we were invited by the people of Syria. We don't intend to leave before the people of Syria say, 'Okay, this is done,'" Erdogan added.
As tensions rose, Russia and Turkey have held three rounds of talks, the first two of which did not yield a ceasefire.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said on Saturday that the two sides agreed in this week's talks to reduce tensions on the ground in Idlib while continuing military action there.
A five-day pause in Turkey's cross-border military offensive to allow the withdrawal of Kurdish YPG fighters from the border area expires at 10 pm (1900 GMT) on Tuesday.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants Syrian government forces to move out of areas near the Turkish border so he can resettle up to 2 million refugees there, his spokesman told the media Press on Saturday.
A Russia-backed Syrian offensive to regain control over Idlib — the last opposition-controlled region in the country — has pushed nearly a million Syrians toward Turkey.
Naseri Paul Biya, the governor of the central region of Cameroon, said there could be more deaths. "We are not in position to give you the total number of casualties,” he said.
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