Erdogan says Turkish army close to taking Islamic State-held town

Beirut: Turkish troops backed by Syrian rebel fighters have entered the centre of the Islamic State group bastion of Al-Bab and will soon capture it, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday.

The town in Syria's Aleppo province is the last stronghold of the jihadist group in the region, and has also been the target of an assault by Syrian government forces.

The Syrian opposition meanwhile announced the formation of a delegation to attend a new round of UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva on 20 February.

Islamic State has come under pressure from simultaneous offensives in both Syria and Iraq, where the group seized large swathes of territory in 2014 and proclaimed an Islamic "caliphate".

Recep Tayyip Erdogan. AFP

Recep Tayyip Erdogan. AFP

Erdogan, speaking in Istanbul, said Al-Bab "is now besieged from all fronts".

"Our forces entered the centre," he added, saying it was "only a matter of time" before the alliance of Turkish forces and rebels took control of the town.

"Daesh forces have begun leaving Al-Bab completely," he said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

Turkish forces and allied rebels entered Al-Bab for the first time on Saturday, from the west, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Britain-based monitor reported heavy clashes inside western Al-Bab on Sunday, as well as on the northern edge of the town, where Turkish forces and rebels were advancing but had not yet entered the town.

One Turkish soldier was killed and two soldiers wounded in clashes with Islamic State jihadists, the Turkish Dogan news agency reported.

That raised to 67 the number of Turkish soldiers killed since Ankara began its Operation Euphrates Shield in August, targeting both Islamic State and the Kurdish YPG militia.

Al-Bab has been a key target for both Operation Euphrates Shield, but also Syrian government forces, and Ankara now finds itself effectively jointly besieging the town with President Bashar al-Assad's forces despite opposing his government.

Syria's army has advanced towards Al-Bab from the south, and on Monday severed the last road leading into the town, completing its encirclement.

Erdogan added that Al-Bab was "not our final target," hinting that Ankara may participate in the fight to recapture Islamic State's de facto Syrian capital Raqa.

More than 310,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests, and successive rounds of peace talks have failed to produce a political solution.

Invitations to new talks on 20 February in Geneva have been delayed while the opposition forms its delegation.

Today, the leading components of the political opposition announced a 21-member delegation, with a new delegation head and chief negotiator.

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Updated Date: Feb 12, 2017 22:29:56 IST

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