Ankara: Eleven Turkish soldiers were killed on Saturday when a helicopter was downed, in the bloodiest day in Ankara’s offensive against a Kurdish militia in northern Syria.
On January 20, Turkey launched a military operation against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in the Afrin region, backing Syrian rebels with air strikes and ground troops.
“At this stage, we can say that one out of two helicopters was downed. We have two martyrs,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said in televised remarks.
The Turkish military later said that nine more soldiers were killed in separate incidents but did not give details.
Another 11 soldiers were injured after the offensive’s bloodiest day for Turkish military personnel, the army said.
Yildirim said the helicopter was on a mission in the Afrin region as part of Ankara’s offensive dubbed Operation ‘Olive Branch’.
Ankara says the YPG is a “terrorist” offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency inside Turkey and the group is blacklisted by Washington and the European Union.
Mustafa Bali, spokesperson for the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces dominated by the YPG, said on Twitter that a helicopter had been hit in the Rajo area of northwest Afrin, near the Turkish border.
But the state-run news agency Anadolu said the incident happened in the southern border province of Hatay, with the private Dogan news agency saying authorities were trying to reach the wreckage in the Kirikhan district.
Earlier, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said a helicopter had been shot down without saying who was responsible.
“Of course, these kinds of things will happen. We are in a war. We will have losses, but we will cause the other side to have losses as well,” he said in a televised speech, vowing to make the perpetrators pay “a much heavier price”.
The Turkish military said one of its helicopters crashed at 1300 (1000 GMT) killing two military personnel but did not give a reason for the incident, only saying that an investigation had been launched.
Last Saturday, seven Turkish troops died in the second worst single-day loss of the operation so far, with five killed in a tank attack.
Some 1,141 “terrorists” had been neutralised during the operation, Erdogan said, referring to those killed but also those captured or wounded.
It was not immediately possible to verify this figure.
Yildirim earlier said Turkey had not launched its operation in Afrin to enter into a war or because it had “an eye” on another country’s territory.
“Excuse me, but no state would ignore a terror organisation growing like a tumour next to it,” he said.
“This is a threat to Turkey, which Ankara has the natural right to fight under international and domestic law,” Yildirim added.