KIEV/ISTANBUL - Turkey will not allow the northern Syrian town of Azaz to fall into the hands of a Kurdish militia and its fighters will face the "harshest reaction" if they approach it again, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Monday.
A major offensive supported by Russian bombing and Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias has brought the Syrian army to within 25 km (15 miles) of the Turkish border. The Kurdish YPG militia has exploited the situation, seizing ground from Syrian rebels to extend its presence along the Turkish border.
Turkey is infuriated by the expansion of Kurdish influence in northern Syria, fearing it will encourage separatist ambitions among its own Kurds. The YPG, which Ankara considers to be a terrorist group, controls nearly all of Syria's frontier with Turkey.
Speaking to reporters on his plane en route to Ukraine, Davutoglu said YPG fighters would have taken control of rebel-held Azaz and the town of Tal Rifaat further south had it not been for Turkish artillery firing at them over the weekend. "YPG elements were forced away from around Azaz. If they approach again they will see the harshest reaction. We will not allow Azaz to fall," Davutoglu said.
He said Turkey would make the Menagh air base north of the city of Aleppo "unusable" if the YPG, which seized it over the weekend from Syrian insurgents, did not withdraw. He warned the YPG not to move east of the Afrin region or west of the Euphrates River, long a "red line" for Ankara.
Azaz came under heavy fire again on Monday. At least 14 civilians were killed when missiles hit a children's hospital, a school and other locations, a medic and two residents said.
Syria's rebels, some backed by the United States, Turkey and their allies, say the YPG is fighting with the Syrian military against them in the five-year-old civil war. The YPG denies this.
Ankara views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought a 31-year-old insurgency for autonomy in southeast Turkey. Washington, which does not see the YPG as terrorists, supports the group in the fight against Islamic State in Syria.
NATO member Turkey is now at risk of being dragged ever deeper into the Syrian conflict. Turkish financial markets including the lira currency were weaker on Monday on fears about the situation.
GROUND INCURSION NOT PLANNED
The Turkish army hit YPG positions in Syria for a third day on Monday following an attack on a border security outpost in the Turkish province of Hatay, foreign ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgic said.
Turkish Defence Minister Ismet Yilmaz denied a report that some Turkish soldiers had entered Syria at the weekend and said Ankara was not considering sending troops there, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency.
The Syrian government had said Turkish forces were believed to be among 100 gunmen who entered Syria on Saturday with a dozen pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns, in an operation to supply insurgents fighting Damascus. "It is not true ... There is no thought of Turkish soldiers entering Syria," Yilmaz said.
Yilmaz also denied reports that Saudi Arabian aircraft had already arrived at Turkey's Incirlik air base to join the fight against Islamic State militants, but said a decision had been reached for Saudi to send four F-16 jets.
A Turkish soldier was killed on Sunday evening after Turkey's security forces clashed with a group at the Syrian border that was trying to enter Turkey illegally, the armed forces said in a statement.
The Turkish military, which regularly detains people crossing back and forth across the border, said the clash occurred in the Yayladagi area of Hatay province at 7:15 p.m. (1715 GMT).