Turkish troops entered Syria in a bold overnight rescue operation, whisking back to Turkish soil some 40 soldiers trapped by Islamic State militants for eight months at a historic Ottoman tomb.
Reconnaissance drones, dozens of tanks and several hundred ground troops were involved in the operation, which the Turkish military said it launched because the “conflict and state of chaos in Syria posed serious risks to the safety and security of the tomb.”
No clashes took place during the operation, but one soldier was reported to have been accidentally killed. The circumstances of his death were not clear.
“This was an extremely successful operation with no loss to our rights under international law,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a press conference Sunday, according to widely published reports.
The tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, was along the Euphrates River about 20 miles inside Syria, but was considered Turkish territory after a 1921 agreement with France, which ruled Syria at the time. About 40 Turkish soldiers have historically been deployed to guard the tomb.
Turkey replaced the guards with 38 special forces last year, as Islamic State militants encircled the mausoleum, hoisting their black flag on the bridge over the Euphrates leading to the site.
During Saturday’s operation, the Turkish military said it evacuated Shah’s remains and other valuable artifacts before destroying the mausoleum’s buildings to prevent their use by extremists. Shah is said to have drowned in the Euphrates in the 13th century, although his remains were in the contested location only since the 1970s, according to the Associated Press.
The tomb and sarcophagus were being “temporarily moved to a new site within Syria,” the military said in a statement.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a statement saying remains were being transferred to a site in the Syrian town of Ashmeh, about 200 yards south of the Turkish border. Images of Turkish soldiers hoisting the country’s crescent and star flag were broadcast on Turkish television.
The large military convoy reportedly entered Syria through the Syrian city of Kobani, just south of the Turkish frontier. Kurdish fighters defending Kobani recently drove Islamic State extremists deep into the countryside surrounding the city, having survived a months-long siege.
Davutoglu said the operation included 39 tanks, 57 armored personnel carriers and nearly 600 soldiers, including heavily-armed special forces. Fighter jets were reported to have been placed on alert.
Turkey revised its rules of engagement in 2012, as the Syrian war worsened, authorizing cross-border operations. The operation is the first of its kind since the outbreak of war in Syria.
Syrian State News denounced the operation as “blatant aggression.”
Ankara and Damascus enjoyed cozy relations before Syria’s war began in 2011. However, Turkish support for rebel groups in Syria and insistence that Syrian President Bashar Assad step down have soured relations.
Ankara is a major supporter of various rebel factions seeking to overthrow the Syrian government. Turkish border areas have long been staging grounds for attacks inside Syria and logistics centers for armed opposition factions.
The Turkish government has denied allegations that it has collaborated with the Islamic State and other Islamist militant groups fighting in Syria.
Johnson is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Aden, Yemen, contributed to this report.