Turkish military enters Syria to evacuate troops

Turkey launched an overnight military operation into neighbouring Syria to evacuate troops guarding an Ottoman tomb and to move the crypt to a new location, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Sunday.

Davutoglu said nearly 600 troops and 100 tanks and armoured personnel carriers were involved in the operation. One group crossed into Syrian territory to reach the tomb, just over the border near the town of Kobani, while a second group took control of an area near the Turkish border where authorities plan to move the tomb. 

One soldier was killed in an accident during the operation, Davutoglu said. The troops hoisted the Turkish flag on the future site of the tomb, he said. “We had given the Turkish armed forces a directive to protect our spiritual values and the safety of our armed forces personnel,” Davutoglu said in televised remarks. 

The tomb belongs to Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire. The tomb, once some 35 kilometres from Turkey on the banks of the Euphrates River, was in Syria’s embattled Aleppo province and is considered Turkish territory. Some 40 Turkish soldiers once guarded the tomb in Syria, making them a target for the Islamic State group and other militants in Syria’s long-running civil war. 

Davutoglu said Turkish troops later destroyed the tomb’s complex, apparently to prevent it from being used by Islamic State group militants. Authorities launched the operation around 9pm on Saturday and ended it on Sunday morning, he said.

Focus of US airstrikes
Kobani was the focus of US airstrikes as Kurdish forces battled militants of the Islamic State group, who hold about a third of Iraq and neighbouring Syria in their self-declared caliphate. Turkey stayed out of the battle at the time, which saw Kurds ultimately push out the extremists. The US-led coalition forces were informed of the Turkish operation after its launch to prevent any casualties, Davutoglu said. 

US officials offered no immediate comment. The site along the Euphrates River is revered by Turkey, a strongly nationalist country whose rights there stem from a 1921 treaty with France, then the colonial power in Syria. The Ottoman Empire collapsed in the early 20th century after World War I. In the 1970s, Turkey moved the mausoleum to its last location because the old site at a castle further south in Syria was to be inundated by the waters of a new dam. 

Shah, a Turkic leader, is believed to have drowned in the Euphrates in the 13th century. His followers headed north into what is today Turkey, where they launched the Ottoman Empire. Some historians question official accounts about the Shah’s tomb, saying they might have been retrospectively concocted to enrich an imperial identity for Turks. – Sapa-AP

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