ISTANBUL (AP) — Three Turkish soldiers were killed in northern Syria in what the Turkish military said was a pre-dawn Syrian airstrike on Thursday, an account disputed by Syrian activists, who said the soldiers were killed by an Islamic State suicide attack the day before.
The Turkish military said in a statement on its website that the attack took place at 3:30 a.m., but did not provide an exact location. Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said the airstrike took place near the town of al-Bab, which Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces are trying to take back from the Islamic State group.
However, a Syrian monitoring group that tracks the conflict through a network of activists on the ground said the Turkish soldiers were killed by an IS suicide attack on Wednesday.
Rami Abdurrahman, who runs the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the suicide attack occurred outside al-Bab, near a village called Waqqah. He dismissed reports that it was an airstrike.
The conflicting accounts could not be immediately reconciled. There was no comment from Damascus, but the IS-run Aamaq news agency reported a suicide attack against Turkish troops in a village near al-Bab on Wednesday.
The Turkish military said 10 other soldiers were wounded in the attack, with one in critical condition.
If the attack is confirmed to be a Syrian government airstrike, it would escalate tensions with Turkey, which is a leading supporter of the rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.
Turkey sent ground troops into northern Syria in August to help Syrian opposition fighters battle both IS and U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces, which Ankara sees as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency in southeastern Turkey.
The Turkish troops are not fighting Syrian government forces, and have not been attacked by them, though Damascus has strongly objected to the military intervention.
“It is clear that there are some who are not pleased with Turkey’s fight against Daesh,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said, referring to the Arabic acronym for IS. “But of course these attacks will be responded to in kind.”
Turkey’s main opposition party leader urged the government to act “with common sense” and not escalate tensions.
“This (issue) could drag Turkey toward a very dangerous process,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu said.
Citing national security considerations, Turkish authorities imposed a temporary media ban on coverage of the attack, barring media outlets from reports that “foster fear, panic and chaos,” and contain images of the deceased or the wounded, or exaggerated accounts.
Turkish warplanes meanwhile struck IS positions in al-Bab and other northern Syrian towns, destroying a building reportedly used as an IS headquarters and seven defensive positions, Anadolu reported, citing unnamed Turkish military officials.
Elsewhere in Syria, U.S. officials said Thursday that an American service member died from wounds suffered in a blast from an improvised explosive device.
A statement released Thursday by the public affairs office of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve said the explosion took place in the vicinity of Ayn Issa in northern Syria. No other information about the explosion or the victim was released. U.S. troops are part of a multinational effort to fight the Islamic State group in the region.
Meanwhile, senior U.N. official said his team has received written approval from Syrian rebels in the besieged parts of the northern city of Aleppo to allow aid in and evacuate the wounded.
Jan Egeland told reporters in Geneva that the U.N. also has “verbal support” from Russia, a close ally of the Syrian government, for a four-point plan reached earlier this month on Aleppo, the epicenter of the civil war.
Egeland said the team is still waiting for approval from the Syrian government, adding that trucks carrying aid could start entering east Aleppo within hours. East Aleppo is home to some 275,000 people and has been besieged by government forces since July.
The U.N. official said there are currently more than 900,000 people in besieged areas around Syria, more “than at any time I can remember in this war.” The conflict began in 2011 with an Arab Spring-inspired uprising against Assad.
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Sarah El Deeb and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, contributed.