ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s military incursion into Syria to relocate a tomb surrounded by Islamic State militants and evacuate the soldiers guarding it was a temporary move to safeguard their lives and not a retreat, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday.
The action, which involved tanks, drones and reconnaissance planes as well as several hundred ground troops, was the first of its kind by the Turkish army into Syria since the start of the civil war there nearly four years ago.
“The Suleyman Shah tomb operation is not a retreat, it is a temporary move in order not to risk soldiers’ lives,” Erdogan said in a speech in the capital Ankara.
“The game of those who tried to use the tomb and our soldiers to blackmail Turkey has been disrupted,” he said.
The Syrian government described the operation as an act of “flagrant aggression”, a response dismissed by Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, who said the Syrian authorities had lost all legitimacy.
The 38 soldiers who had been guarding the tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, were brought safely home in Saturday’s night’s operation.
Normally, the detachment is rotated every six months but the last one was trapped for eight months by Islamic State fighters.
The tomb, on a site within Syria that Ankara considers sovereign territory as agreed in a 1921 treaty, is being relocated close to the Turkish border. Suleyman Shah’s remains were taken to Turkey in the meantime.
At a news conference in Ankara, Kalin also said Turkey was working intensively with the British authorities to trace three London schoolgirls who travelled to Turkey last week and are believed to be making their way to Syria.
Thousands of foreigners from more than 80 nations including Britain, other parts of Europe, China and the United States have already joined the ranks of Islamic State and other radical groups in Syria and Iraq, many crossing through Turkey.
Turkey has said it needs more information from Western intelligence agencies to intercept them. Kalin said Turkey had already deported a total of 1,400 people suspected of seeking to join extremist groups.
Additional reporting by Asli Kandemir and Humeyra Pamuk; Writing by Nick Tattersall, Editing by Angus MacSwan