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Turkey and Russia discuss secure zone in Syria's Idlib: Turkish Defence Minister


By Orhan Coskun

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey and Russia are discussing the establishment of a secure zone within Syria's northwestern Idlib region where Syrians displaced by fighting can shelter during the winter, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Wednesday.

Akar said attacks by Syrian government forces were continuing in the Idlib region despite a Jan. 12 ceasefire agreement reached by Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides in Syria's nine-year conflict.

Witnesses and rebel sources said on Wednesday Russian jets struck several rebel-held towns in southern Idlib for the first time since the ceasefire came into force.

Turkey, which has backed Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad and already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, fears that the offensive will trigger another wave of civilians fleeing toward its border.

President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday Turkey was determined to prevent the ceasefire breaking down to avoid 400,000 displaced people heading for Turkish territory.

Russia has said people could escape the attacks on opposition-held areas by crossing into territory controlled by Assad's forces, but Akar said that was not an option.

"Our Idlib friends who have become refugees don't want to go to a government-controlled area," he told reporters in Ankara. "We are in talks with the Russians on establishing a secure zone, where the people can spend the winter period."

His comments came two days after Turkish and Syrian intelligence chiefs met in Moscow on Monday, in the first publicly acknowledged meeting for years, and discussed the situation in Idlib.

Akar said Turkey had strengthened an observation post which has been surrounded by Syrian forces in the Idlib region, and would not be abandoning it.

The minister also said Turkey has not received an official request regarding a call by the Iraqi parliament on Jan. 5 for the withdrawal of foreign troops.

(Reporting by Orhan Coskun; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Daren Butler)

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