GAZIANTEP, TURKEY � Turkish F-16 warplanes were put on emergency standby Thursday after Ankara accused the Syrian government of having carried out an airstrike on Turkish troops operating in northern Syria that left three soldiers dead and 10 others wounded, one critically.
Western diplomats expressed concern the airstrike overnight Wednesday by a Syrian air force L-39 Albatros light-attack warplane marks a highly dangerous turn of events in the five-year-long Syria conflict and risks bringing Syria and Turkey into a major clash.
Initially, the death of the soldiers near the town of al-Bab, northeast of Aleppo, was blamed on the Islamic State (IS) terror group. But in a statement Thursday the Turkish military said the Syrian air force was responsible. The bodies of the killed soldiers were transferred to the southern Turkish border town of Kilis.
"In the air strike assessed to have been by Syrian regime forces, three of our heroic soldiers were killed and 10 soldiers wounded, one seriously," according to a Turkish armed forces statement.
The Syrian government has so far failed to comment. A pro-opposition network of activists, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, disputed Ankara's claim, saying it believed the Turkish deaths were caused by an IS suicide bomb.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim held emergency phone calls with Defense Minister Fikri Isik and the Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar before placing a gag order on the Turkish media, ordering broadcasters not to report on the attack.
Yildirim vowed later that the attack will not be left unanswered." He told reporters that the alleged air strike won't affect the Turkish army's determination to clear northern Syria of "terrorist groups."
"This attack and other such attacks will be retaliated, he said.
Turkish opposition politician Kemal Kilicdaroglu warned the air strike could drag Turkey into a "perilous process" and urged the government to act with restraint.
Turkish military targeted
The airstrike marks the first time the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have targeted the Turkish military since the launch in northern Syria 94 days ago of operation Euphrates Shield, a Turkish-led intervention with Syrian rebel militias aimed at pushing back from Turkey's border both ISIS militants and the Kurdish militiamen of the People's Protection Units, or YPG, who Ankara fears want to carve out an independent state in northern Syria.
Source: Voice of America