Ankara (AFP) - Turkey on Wednesday claimed significant progress in the months-long battle to capture the Islamic State (IS) held Syrian town of Al-Bab, signalling it was looking to push to the jihadist stronghold of Raqa in the next stage of the operation.
Ankara launched an unprecedented incursion to support rebels inside Syria in August, making rapid advances in initial stages but has been locked in a bloody battle for Al-Bab since December.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Al-Bab was now "surrounded on all sides" and the town's outer neighbourhoods were "under control".
"The efforts to take it completely under control continue," Yildirim added during a press conference in Ankara with the head of Libya's unity government Fayez al-Sarraj.
Four soldiers were killed in the latest fighting on Wednesday, Dogan news agency reported, raising the death toll for Turkey's Syria campaign to at least 52 mostly from IS attacks.
Fighting raged on the ground near Al-Bab on Wednesday as Turkish troops and allied rebels forces clashed with IS fighters, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The monitor said both Turkish troops and allied rebels and Syrian regime forces had advanced towards IS-held Al-Bab overnight. Anadolu news agency said pro-Ankara forces had captured strategic hilltops from the jihadists.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that over the last few days, Turkish special forces, soldiers and Syrian rebels had made "serious" progress in Al-Bab.
- Raqa next up? -
Cavusoglu suggested that once Al-Bab was captured Turkey and its allies could send special forces to take Raqa, the de-facto capital for the Islamic State (IS) group to the southwest.
"The target after this (Al-Bab) in Syria is the Raqa operation," Cavusoglu said alongside his Saudi Arabian counterpart Adel al-Jubeir in Ankara.
"As regional countries, as countries inside the (US-led) coalition, we can put our special forces in, we need to put them in," Cavusoglu added, referring to any Raqa offensive.
His comments come after US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke via telephone and discussed acting together in Turkey's battle to capture Al-Bab and also over Raqa.
Jubeir said Saudi Arabia was "looking forward to working with Turkey and the Trump administration in order to intensify the efforts to eradicate Daesh," or IS.
Last August, Ankara launched an ambitious military operation supporting Syrian opposition fighters to clear its border of IS and pushing back Syrian Kurdish militia.
Cavusoglu warned against working with the militia to retake the city.
"It is necessary to conduct the Raqa operation not with terror groups but the right people," he said.
Erdogan's spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said a "concrete plan" to clear IS from Raqa was being discussed with Washington.
Trump had a "positive attitude" on the Raqa issue, Kalin added during an interview with NTV broadcaster.
- 'Russia-Turkey coordination' -
Al-Bab has been besieged since Monday, when government forces of President Bashar al-Assad advancing from the south severed a road leading into the town.
Turkish forces and allied rebels meanwhile have advanced from the east, north and west, the Observatory told AFP in Beirut.
This has created a delicate situation for Ankara, which has opposed Assad since the onset of the almost six-year civil war.
But relations between Turkey and Assad's chief ally Russia improved markedly in the last months and the two sides worked together to evacuate citizens from Aleppo.
Kalin said Turkey was coordinating with Russia to avoid any risk of contact with Syrian regime forces.
According to the Observatory, six civilians were killed overnight and 12 injured in Turkish bombardment while another six civilians were killed on Wednesday in regime shelling as they fled an IS-held village on the outskirts of the town.
Turkish forces regularly carry our air strikes in support of its ground operation in Syria but officials insist that the utmost is done to avoid any civilian casualties and have vehemently denied claims civilians have been killed in previous strikes.
The Turkish army said 254 targets were hit and 58 "terrorists" were killed in the latest strikes in Al-Bab.