ISTANBUL: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday said Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies have entered the centre of the Islamic State-held bastion Al-Bab, saying its capture was now a “matter of time”.
“Al-Bab is now besieged from all fronts… Our forces entered the centre” with Syrian rebels, Erdogan told journalists in Istanbul before leaving for a tour of Gulf countries.
Erdogan said it was “only a matter of time” before the allied forces took full control of the flashpoint town.
“Daesh forces have begun leaving Al-Bab completely,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for the IS group.
Turkish forces and allied rebels on Saturday entered Al-Bab, in northern Syria, to drive out IS militants, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Turkish army launched an ambitious campaign inside Syria on August 24 codenamed Euphrates Shield to clear its border of IS fighters and stop the advance of Kurdish militia.
But the clashes in Al-Bab have proved the toughest in the campaign, with Turkish military fatalities surging.
One Turkish soldier was killed and three others wounded in clashes with militants on Sunday, the private Dogan news agency reported, citing military sources.
The latest death brings the number of Turkish troops killed in the Syria offensive to 67.
The three injured troops were evacuated from Al-Bab and taken to hospitals in Turkey’s Kilis and Gaziantep provinces near the Syrian border, Dogan reported.
Al-Bab is the militant group’s last stronghold in the northern province of Aleppo and is also being targeted by Syrian government forces.
Turkey has suggested that it could turn its sights on Raqa after the Al-Bab operation is complete, with Erdogan discussing both Al-Bab and Raqa in a call with US President Donald Trump this week.
Erdogan on Sunday said Turkey would not stop after Al-Bab, which he said was “not our final target” although he clarified Ankara had no intention to stay in the war-torn country.
“Our final target is to clean the region from Daesh,” he said.
“Daesh’s main centre is not Al-Bab but Raqa. Once Raqa is cleared, this region will be a terror-free area.”
Turkey has repeatedly called for a “safe zone” inside Syria supported by a no-fly zone, which it believes could help to alleviate the burden of accommodating Syrian refugees.
Some 2.7 million Syrian citizens have sought refuge in Turkey from the almost six-year civil war.