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Syrian Government Recaptures Strategic Town of Saraqeb from Turkish-Backed Rebels

FILE - Smoke rises after an air strike in Saraqeb in Idlib province, Syria, Feb. 28, 2020.

Syrian government forces have recaptured the strategic town of Saraqeb on the Damascus to Aleppo highway, one day after Turkish fighter jets reportedly shot down two Syrian government SU-24 warplanes. Damascus is also claiming it shot down three Turkish drones.

Syrian state TV showed its correspondent standing next to the strategic Damascus to Aleppo highway, which crosses through the center of the town of Saraqeb, as several rockets exploded in the distance. The Syrian Army said it had recaptured the town and the highway, which it lost to Turkish-backed rebels last week.

Qatari-owned Al Jazeera TV (Arabic) claimed that rebels "continue to control the outskirts of Saraqeb and that fighting has not ended." VOA could not independently confirm the claim.

Syrian TV reported that "Turkish-backed forces keep trying to block the advance of government troops as they attempt to reopen the country's strategic highway grid."

A Syrian army officer told Syrian TV that his men were trying to reopen the highway to the coast, which also passes through the same area.

He says his men are continuing to push forward, despite attacks by Turkish forces and Turkish drones, and that the battle is over reopening the M4 highway from Aleppo to the Syrian coastal city of Latakiya.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told supporters Monday that Turkey has exacted a heavy toll on Syrian government forces.

He claims that Turkish troops have destroyed 135 regime tanks, 22 armored vehicles, 45 artillery pieces, 44 multi-barrel rocket launchers, five air defense systems, four mortars, 29 pickup-mounted antiaircraft batteries, nine ammunition depot buildings, two Syrian government warplanes on Sunday, and killed 2,557 Syrian soldiers, at last count.

Erdogan claimed he was receiving numerous phone calls from world leaders, including German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, as well as a visit Monday from Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. Both Russia and Turkey confirmed that Erdogan would meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday.

Arab media reported that the Russian Defense Ministry warned Turkey Monday that it can "no longer guarantee the safety of Turkish planes inside Syria, due to the closure of Syrian airspace by the government." At least one Turkish drone was shot down near Idlib over the weekend.

Migrants walk to reach Pazarakule border gate, Edirne, Turkey, at the Turkish-Greek border, March 1, 2020.
Migrants walk to reach Pazarakule border gate, Edirne, Turkey, at the Turkish-Greek border, March 1, 2020.

As thousands of refugees attempted to cross into Greece after the Turkish government transported them to the border over the weekend, Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas called the influx of migrants at the border "an active, serious, severe and asymmetrical threat to the national security of the country."

Arab media broadcast amateur video of a young Syrian man who appeared to have died after reportedly being shot by Greek border police. VOA could not independently confirm the claim.