International desk, Feb 28: At least 29 Turkish soldiers have been killed in an air raid by Syrian government forces in the northwestern Idlib province, the governor in the southeastern province of Hatay said early on Friday, raising an earlier death toll, while also threatening an escalation of conflict and another refugee crisis.The deaths are the largest number of fatalities suffered by Turkey in a single day since it began sending thousands of troops into Idlib in recent weeks, amid a Russia-backed Syrian government offensive to seize the war-torn country’s last opposition-held stronghold, which is home to more than three million people, Aljazeera reports.
The ferocious bombing campaign and ground assault have displaced nearly one million people since December, more than half of whom are children.
In a statement issued through a spokesman, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg condemned the ‘indiscriminate’ air strikes by the Syrian regime and Russian forces.
Rahmi Dogan, the governor of Turkey’s southeastern province of Hatay earlier announced in televised remarks that 22 soldiers were killed.
Following the attack, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a two-hour emergency security meeting in Ankara that was attended by ministers and military officials.
Separately, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke by phone with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, according to state media.
The Turkish army is retaliating with artillery fire at Syrian government targets in Syria.
“All known” Syrian government targets are under fire by Turkish air and land support units, Turkey’s communications director Fahrettin Altun said on Friday, according to state-run Anadolu news agency.
Turkey has decided to “respond in kind” to the attack by the Syrian government, Altun added.
Attacks on Turkish forces have caused severe tensions between the Syrian government’s key ally, Russia, and Turkey, which backs certain opposition groups in Idlib.
Erdogan has previously pledged to launch a military operation to push back Syrian government forces if they did not retreat from a line of Turkish observations posts by the end of February.
Meanwhile, a Turkish official told Reuters News Agency that Turkey’s police, coastguard and border security officials had been ordered against trying to stop Syrian refugees from reaching Europe, in anticipation of an imminent arrival from Idlib.
Middle East Eye also reported that Turkey will open its Idlib border and allow refugees free passage to Europe.
Turkey already hosts more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees and fears a new influx, said Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra, reporting from the Turkish-Syrian border.
“In the coming days, [it is likely] to see Turkey take an aggressive role and ask the European Union and NATO, in particular, to take a very strong stance when it comes to what is happening now in Idlib,” he added.
“Turkey feels that it is fighting this fight on its own while it considers what is doing an attempt to put an end to the humanitarian [crisis in Idlib].”