Clashes between Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and ISIL fighters have intensified around the northern Syrian town of Al-Bab, resulting in the deaths of 16 Turkish soldiers, the military’s highest single-day toll of its four-month campaign inside the country.
Wednesday’s battles, in which another 33 Turkish soldiers were wounded and 138 ISIL members were also killed, were some of the deadliest yet in Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation in northern Syria, according to the army.
“The operation to control Al-Bab, which is being besieged under the Euphrates Shield Operation, is ongoing,” the army said in a statement.
The military had said earlier that rebel forces, which have been launching attacks on ISIL fighters in Al-Bab for weeks, had largely established control over the strategic area around the town’s hospital.
“Once this area has been seized, Daesh’s dominance of Al-Bab will to a large extent be broken,” it said in an earlier statement on Wednesday, using an Arabic acronym for the group.
ISIL was using suicide bombers and vehicle-borne explosives intensively, the Turkish military said.
Turkey’s military was pressing on with the operation after its foreign minister and his Russian and Iranian counterparts said in Moscow on Tuesday that they were ready to help broker a deal to end Syria’s almost six-year-old war.
The talks came as Syrian government forces neared their biggest victory in the conflict, closing in on the last rebel enclave in the city of Aleppo.
About 30 Turkish soldiers have been killed in the course of Euphrates Shield, which was launched to push ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group, and a Kurdish militia away from Syria’s border with Turkey.
Turkish air strikes on Wednesday destroyed 67 ISIL targets, the military said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, reported fierce clashes at the southwestern edges of Al-Bab, with some rebel advances there.
It said that Turkish air strikes in the area had killed seven people in Al-Bab and that 15 Turkish-backed rebels had been killed in fighting on Wednesday.
The Euphrates Shield operation is largely focused on combating ISIL, but Turkey is also determined to prevent the Kurdish YPG fighters, which it sees as a hostile force, from linking cantons it controls along the border.