Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters resumed a major offensive inside the Islamic State-held city of al-Bab on Thursday, a day after they broke through IS defences in its remaining stronghold in Aleppo province.
A rebel commander in the Euphrates Shield forces said fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), working with Turkish commanders, were moving forward from territory near the western gates of the city they had stormed on Wednesday.
“The battles began a short while ago to complete what had been achieved yesterday,” said a commander of a leading FSA group fighting in al-Bab, who requested anonymity.
Northeast of al-Bab, they added, they have also regained control of the two key villages of Qabasin and Bazza, from which they had been repeatedly pushed out in past fighting by a succession of suicide attacks.
The advance into al-Bab threatens an important Islamic State stronghold, whose fall would deepen Turkish influence in an area of northern Syria where it has created a de facto buffer zone.
Syrian government forces have also advanced on al-Bab from the south, bringing them close to their Turkish and rebel enemies in one of the most complex battlefields of the six-year-old conflict.
Al-Bab was a major economic hub for the militants and lies on a key crossroads for the region north of Aleppo. The city is just 30 km (20 miles) from the Turkish border.
The Turkish military said on Thursday they had killed 44 militants in aerial and artillery strikes and clashes in northern Syria.
Five Turkish soldiers were killed in the clashes, the private Turkish news agency Dogan said. This would bring the total death toll among Turkish troops since the start of the Euphrates Shield operation in August to 66, Turkish media said.
A suicide bomber advancing towards the Turkish-backed fighters briefly held back Thursday’s push, a rebel source said.
“The militants have detonated a car bomb in the face of the Euphrates Shield forces to prevent them advancing,” he said.
The militants’ fierce resistance since the al-Bab operation began has inflicted the deadliest losses on the Turkish army so far under the Euphrates Shield operation.
The operation aims to drive Islamic State away from the border and also to prevent further gains by U.S.-backed Kurdish militia who are also fighting the jihadist group. Turkey fears that Kurdish gains in Syria will boost a Kurdish militant insurgency on its own soil.
Amaq, a news agency affiliated with Islamic State militants, said the Turkish-backed rebels had taken areas inside the city after dozens of aerial raids on their positions, accompanied by heavy artillery shelling by the Turkish army.
The militants said at least 30 civilians had been killed in the Turkish bombardment.
The militants said heavy Russian aerial bombing had also forced their retreat from villages south of al-Bab now captured by the Syrian army and Iranian-backed militias fighting alongside them.
Turkish commanders gave the green light for a large-scale push into al-Bab after the Syrian army and its allies made rapid gains that brought them to its southern outskirts, another rebel official told Reuters.
“Turkish commanders took a decision with us to speed the operation after the (Syrian) regime came too close to the city,” he said.
Colonel Muatz Raslan, a rebel commander, said of the offensive: “We have prepared our fighters well for this battle and we have a determination to liberate the city before the others.”