Turkey avenges two soldiers’ burning with deadly raids on Al-Bab
LONDON - At least 88 civilians have been killed in 24 hours of Turkish air strikes on an Islamic State group bastion in northern Syria, a monitoring group said Friday.
A barrage of raids hit Al-Bab on Thursday, killing 72 civilians including 21 children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Bombardment continued on Friday, leaving another 16 civilians dead, including three children.
"Eighty-eight civilians have been killed in 24 hours," Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.
He said it was the bloodiest attack by Turkish forces that his monitoring group had recorded since Ankara began its intervention in Syria in late August.
The Observatory says it determines whose planes carry out raids according to their type, location, flight patterns and the munitions involved.
Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies have been seeking to capture Al-Bab, about 25 kilometres (15 miles) from the northern Syrian border, for weeks.
On Thursday, IS released a video purportedly showing two captured Turkish soldiers being burned alive, after Ankara vowed to respond to 16 of its troops being killed in the fight against the jihadist group.
Turks reacted angrily Friday, while awaiting an official reaction from the government.
The 19-minute video, showing two uniformed men being hauled from a cage before being bound and torched, was posted on jihadist websites and supposedly shot in the IS-declared "Aleppo Province" in northern Syria.
The video came as the Turkish military was suffering its worst losses in its fight against jihadists in northern Syria, where nearly 90 civilians have been killed since Thursday in Turkish raids, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Speaking in Turkish, the killer of the two men criticises Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and calls for "destruction to be sowed" in Turkey.
By mid-Friday, the Turkish authorities had not yet reacted but Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim were due to speak later in the day in Izmir in western Turkey.
Despite reported difficulty in accessing some sites, especially Twitter and Facebook, internet users were widely discussing the brutal video, with one saying "it's a nightmare".
Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were difficult to access in Turkey on Friday, according to Turkey Blocks, a website specialising in tracking internet censorship.
The traumatic images added to the pain suffered by Turks, who have had to deal with several attacks -- including several claimed by IS jihadists -- a bloody but failed coup and, this week, the assassination of Russia's ambassador in Ankara.
According to pro-government news agency Anadolu, Turkish police arrested 31 people suspected of links with IS on Friday and were hunting for 10 more. It was not clear if the arrests were linked to the video.
- Macabre -
The shocking images recall the killing of Maaz al-Kassasbeh, a Jordanian fighter pilot, who was captured by the jihadists when his plane went down in Syria in December 2014, and was later burned alive in a cage.
Before being burned, the two victims gave their names in Turkish as Fethi Sahin, born in Konya in central Turkey and Sefter Tas, a 21-year-old serving in Kilis in the southeast.
According to Turkish media, a soldier by the name of Sefter Tas was kidnapped by IS on September 1, 2015, but Ankara never confirmed the capture.
The Turkish army however did confirm last month it had lost contact with two of its troops in Syria and the IS-linked propaganda agency Amaq had claimed their capture by the jihadists. Again, Turkish authorities did not confirm the alleged kidnapping.
The video came shortly after 16 Turkish soldiers were killed by IS fighters in Ankara's biggest loss so far in its unprecedented incursion into Syria.
They were killed in a succession of attacks around the Syrian town of Al-Bab on Wednesday that included three suicide car bombings.
The video was also published just hours after Erdogan vowed no let-up in the ongoing campaign.
"Yes, maybe we will have to lay martyrs to rest," he said in a speech in Ankara.
"But we are determined to preserve their memory and protect what they left us and continue this struggle."
At least 35 Turkish soldiers have been killed since the August 24 start of Turkey's campaign in Syria codenamed Operation Euphrates Shield, with the aim of ousting IS jihadists as well as Kurdish militia from the border area.
Turkish forces regularly carry out air strikes in support of the ground operation in Syria, but officials insist that the utmost is done to avoid civilian casualties.