TURKISH soldiers launched an overnight mission into neighbouring Syria, evacuating dozens of besieged troops guarding an Ottoman tomb and moving the crypt back to Turkey after ceremonially planting the country’s crescent-and-star flag.
The mission yesterday, saving Turkish soldiers reportedly stuck for months at the tomb of the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, Suleyman Shah, saw hundreds of troops backed by tanks cross the border near the frontier town of Kobani once besieged by the Islamic State (IS) group.
Turkey was widely criticised for not intervening for months in the Kobani battle, which finally saw Kurdish fighters backed by US-led airstrikes push out the extremists.
“We had given the Turkish armed forces a directive to protect our spiritual values and the safety of our armed forces personnel,” prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu said yesterday.
Nearly 600 Turkish soldiers on some 100 tanks and armoured personnel carriers crossed into Syria on Saturday night, as drones and airplanes flew reconnaissance missions overhead, Mr Davutoglu said.
One group travelled to the tomb, some 22 miles from Turkey on the banks of the Euphrates River in Syria’s embattled Aleppo province, he said.
Another group seized an area only 200 yards from the Turkish border in Syria’s Ashma region to be the new home for the tomb, according to a statement from president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office.
One soldier was killed in an “accident” during the operation, Turkey’s military said, without elaborating.
Images were released of three Turkish soldiers raising the country’s flag at the new site.
“Before the Turkish flag was lowered at [the tomb], the Turkish flag started to be waved at another location in Syria,” Mr Davutoglu said. He said troops destroyed the complex once housing the tomb.
The US-led coalition forces were informed of the Turkish operation after its launch to prevent any casualties, Mr Davutoglu added.
Syria’s foreign ministry denounced the Turkish operation, calling it a “flagrant aggression.” It also suggested that the mission indicated a close relationship between Turkey and IS militants.
Syria routinely accuses Turkey of supporting the IS group.
The ministry said Ankara informed the Syrian Consulate in Istanbul ahead of the operation but did not wait for approval from Damascus.
Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, confirmed that Ankara had notified Syria before the operation that it was vacating the tomb temporarily, and that it would return to the area when it is “ready” to do so.
“We conducted it with our own initiative,” he said.
There had been rumours for months that the soldiers stationed at the tomb had been besieged by militants from the IS group.