Syrian rebel fighters backed by Turkey are advancing on the northwest Syrian town of Dabiq, which is held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said.
"We entered Jarablus, and then al-Rai, and now we are moving where? To Dabiq. We will declare a terror-free safe zone of 5,000 [square] kilometres," Erdogan, speaking in the city of Rize on the Black Sea coast, said on Saturday.
He was referring to areas in Syria already captured by Turkish troops and Turkey-backed opposition forces.
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Abdul-Razzaq Freiji, a Turkey-backed rebel commander, said participants of the Operation Euphrates Shield are bombarding Dabiq and the nearby town of Soran, in preparation for an all-out ground offensive on the two areas.
"Daesh members have gathered lots of fighters for this battle that will be harsh," Freiji told AP news agency using ISIL's Arabic acronym.
"We are ready for the battle and we will take it [Dabiq] no matter what the price is, and after that we will march toward al-Bab," he added, referring to another ISIL stronghold.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also confirmed the offensive saying the attack was preceded with intense shelling on Saturday.
|Erdogan told his supporters on Saturday that he wants to create a "safe zone" in Syria's Dabiq [AP]
In his speech, Erdogan suggested that once the areas are retaken from ISIL, some of the nearly three million Syrian refugees in Turkey could return to their homes.
"They can go to their own lands, we can let them live there safely," he said. "That's the step we will take. We have given our proposal to coalition powers and we are moving together."
Al Jazeera's Mohammed Adow, reporting from Gaziantep, said Turkish jets and tanks have been pounding Dabiq in support of the rebels.
"The first and foremost objective of Turkey is to move ISIL fighters from as far away as possible from its border," our correspondent said.
The town of Dabiq is central to ISIL propaganda, with the group citing ancient prophecy declaring Dabiq as the scene of an apocalyptic battle between Christianity and Islam.
The group named its online magazine after the town, which it has occupied since August 2014.
According to the Observatory, ISIL had been sending reinforcements into Dabiq over the past weeks, including one of their most elite units, known as Jaish al-Isra, which arrived in recent days. It also said that ISIL fighters had been planting mines and explosives.
Al Jazeera's Adow said that the latest Turkish offensive also serves a second purpose of "keeping in check the influence and capability" of Kurdish fighters, who are being seen by Ankara as an extension of Turkey's outlawed Kurdish separatists.
Meanwhile, in the northern city of Aleppo, Syrian and Russian air strikes hit several rebel-held eastern neighbourhoods on Saturday amid pngoing clashes, according to the Observatory and the Aleppo Media Centre, an activist collective.
Source: Al Jazeera News And News Agencies