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Erdogan accuses Syrian government of trying to 'sabotage' Russia-Turkey ties

At least 42 fighters have been killed in clashes in Idlib province since the weekend
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan flashes four fingers and makes the Rabia sign as he speaks during holy month of Ramadan (AFP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Bashar al-Assad's government in Syria of "seeking to sabotage" Turkey's relationship with Russia through its attacks on Syria's last rebel stronghold in the northwest of the country.

Erdogan told his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in a phone call late Monday that an offensive by Assad's forces sought to "sabotage Turkish-Russian cooperation," according to Fahrettin Altun, communications director at the Turkish presidency, on Twitter.

Clashes in Idlib province in northwestern Syria have killed at least 42 fighters in 24 hours a monitor said Monday, while government bombardment on the region has devastated health services.

Idlib's three million inhabitants are supposed to be protected by a buffer zone deal signed last September by Russia and Turkey.

The readout of the phone call made no mention of the fact that Russian forces are involved in the Syrian offensive. 

Russia and Turkey are on opposing sides of the conflict, with Moscow strongly supporting Assad, while Ankara has called for his removal and supported Syrian rebels in the civil war since it began in 2011.

However, Turkey and Russia have worked closely, along with Iran, to find a political solution to the conflict. 

Erdogan lamented that "the regime's ceasefire violations targeting the Idlib de-escalation zone over the last two weeks have reached an alarming dimension."

He said it was impossible to explain it as a counter-terror effort given the number of casualties and damage to health services.

The Turkish leader also warned that the attacks risked undermining the fate of the political process in Syria.

Escalation

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Syria's former al-Qaeda affiliate, controls most of Idlib province as well as parts of neighbouring Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 16 loyalists and 19 militants died between Sunday and Monday in clashes in the area of Jabal al-Akrad in Latakia province, which lies on the bastion's northwestern edge.

Russian and government aircraft bombarded the area on Monday, while they also hit southern parts of the militants' stronghold, said the Britain-based war monitor.

HTS and its allies launched a counter-attack late Monday, bombing areas in the north of the province and sparking fierce clashes on the ground, according to the Observatory.

The civil war in Syria has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it started with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.

A statement released by the governments of the UK, France and Germany on Monday called on all sides to "avoid any military offensive in the region and abide by their commitments to de-escalate violence in Idlib."

"In Istanbul, the heads of state and government of Russia, Turkey, Germany and France committed themselves to a lasting ceasefire in Idlib while underlining the necessity of fully implementing the measures foreseen in the Russian-Turkish agreement," said the three countries in a joint statement.

"This is paramount, to ensure the protection of civilians and safe and unhindered humanitarian access to alleviate their suffering."