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Turkey hits back at Moscow over Idlib claims

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Ankara (AFP)

Turkey on Saturday hit back at Russian accusations of failing to honour a 2018 deal by insisting it carried out its responsibilities in Idlib, Syria's last major rebel bastion.

"Observation posts were set up and the regime had to stay outside of this area. Russia and Iran were to ensure the regime stayed outside, Turkey had responsibilities too, Turkey fulfilled these," Turkish Vice-President Fuat Oktay told NTV broadcaster.

"Undertaking an extremely risky and difficult duty, Turkey took real initiative to stop the bloodshed of civilians, to prevent a new migration wave and to ensure it did not become a terror nest."

Turkey has 12 observation posts in the northwestern province of Idlib after the 2018 agreement between Russia and Turkey to prevent a Damascus-led offensive.

Up to four of Turkey's posts are now in Syrian regime-controlled territory, Turkish officials say.

Turkey and Russia have been embroiled in a war of words over Idlib as the Syrian regime backed by Moscow has intensified an assault, killing hundreds of civilians.

The Russian defence ministry said earlier this week Turkey did not separate "fighters from the moderate opposition from terrorists."

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar then said on Thursday force would be used against anyone who did not adhere to the ceasefire, including "radicals".

Idlib is held by an array of rebels dominated by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist group, which is led by members of the country's former Al-Qaeda franchise.

The tensions began after 14 Turks were killed this month by regime shelling in Idlib.

- Turkey's warnings -

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked the Syrian regime to withdraw from Turkish-manned posts by the end of February, warning that otherwise Ankara will "take matters into its own hands."

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu later on Saturday repeated the threat that Turkey would "take necessary measures" if diplomatic efforts with Russia failed.

Despite being on opposing sides, rebel supporter Turkey and Moscow ally Russia have worked closely on Syria.

Cavusoglu told reporters he would hold talks with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Saturday afternoon at the Munich Security Conference.

A Turkish delegation will go to Moscow on Monday, the minister added.

"Russia's role here is very important because we all know what influence it has on the regime and it is the regime's guarantor," Cavusoglu said.

Turkey says it wants to stop the Damascus regime's "aggression" in a bid to stop the deaths of civilians and to prevent a wave of refugees fleeing to Turkey.

The assault has forced 800,000 people to flee since December, according to the United Nations.

Turkey is already home to more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees. "Turkey cannot withstand another migration wave," Oktay said.

In recent days, Turkey has sent multiple military reinforcements to Idlib, and Hurriyet daily on Saturday reported that a 60-vehicle convoy carrying commandoes and armoured carriers was sent to beef up the Turkish posts.

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