Turkey will no longer prevent Syrian refugees from entering Europe, a Turkish official said, as authorities announced at least 29 of its soldiers had been killed in Syria.
The Turkish government has ordered police, coast guard and border security officials to stand down and allow refugees to pass, Reuters quoted a senior Turkish official as saying Thursday night. Under a 2016 agreement between Turkey and the EU, Ankara pledged to work to stop migrants crossing the Aegean.
The statement came shortly after local authorities in southern Turkey announced that a number of Turkish troops had been killed in airstrikes in Syria’s northern Idlib province. Ankara has sent thousands of soldiers to Idlib, which is held by Turkish-backed rebels, in an attempt to halt an advance by Syrian regime forces and their Russian allies.
The governor of Hatay province, which borders Idlib, said that at least 29 Turkish soldiers had been killed, the largest number of deaths suffered by Turkey in a single day since it began intervening in Syria. Other reports put the death toll at above 30.
It was not immediately clear whether Syrian or Russian planes were responsible. The Hatay governor said that the airstrikes had been carried out by “regime forces.”
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan convened an emergency security meeting Thursday evening and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoğlu spoke with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on the phone, Turkish media reported.
The escalating fighting in northern Syria has displaced nearly a million people since December, with many fleeing toward Turkey, which already hosts about 3.5 million Syrians.
Turkey, however, has long sealed its border with Syria to refugees. The government has also restricted movements for refugees within Turkey, requiring them to obtain permission to leave the province they are registered in.
The Turkish government did not say whether it would also open its own border to Syrian refugees.
Erdoğan has pledged to launch an operation to push back Syrian regime troops if they do not retreat from a line of Turkish observation points by the end of this month.