Turkey warns it will protect outposts in Syria

Turkey has deployed 350 vehicles with commandos backed by armoured vehicles to reinforce observation outposts in the Syrian opposition bastion of Idlib (AFP Photo/Aref TAMMAWI)

Istanbul (AFP) - Turkey threatened Saturday to strike back if its military outposts in the Syrian opposition bastion of Idlib come under attack, a day after officials said three had been surrounded.

Under an agreement with Russia, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey has set up 12 observation posts in Idlib to avert an offensive by Syrian government forces.

Since Friday, Turkey has sent 350 vehicles with commandos backed by armoured vehicles to beef up the positions, the state-run Anadolu news agency said, after officials reported that three had been surrounded by regime forces.

"Our observation posts in Idlib continue their duties and are capable of protecting themselves with the weapons and equipment they possess," the Turkish defence ministry said on Twitter.

"In the event of a new attack, a proper response will be given in the strongest manner, based on the right of self-defence."

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has given Syria an ultimatum to pull its troops away from Turkish observation posts by the end of February, after eight Turks were killed by regime fire on Monday.

Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan's top press aide, said the escalation in Idlib was becoming unacceptable for Ankara, and blamed Assad's regime for the crisis.

"We cannot tolerate what has been unfolding in Idlib. We will seek accountability for our martyrs," he told a Turkey-Syria media forum on Saturday in Istanbul.

"Bashar al-Assad's place in the future ... is not the presidential palace but the International Court of Justice at The Hague," he said.

Since the deadly clashes erupted, Turkey has urged Moscow to convince Assad to end the Syrian offensive.

A Russian delegation on Saturday met with Turkish officials for two rounds of talks in the capital Ankara.

The delegations including military and intelligence officials from both sides discussed the situation in Idlib and the steps to be taken in order to ensure calm on the field as soon as possible and push forward the political process, a Turkish diplomatic source said.

The talks are due to continue next week, the source added.

Turkey and Russia have worked closely in recent years to resolve the standoff in Idlib despite being on opposing sides of the conflict.