At least two attacks Friday near a Syrian town just captured by Turkish forces and Syrian opposition fighters from the Islamic State group killed more than 60, mostly civilians and including two Turkish soldiers, as the group retreats from one of its last remaining strongholds in northern Syria, Turkey’s news agency and Syrian activists said.
In a hallmark IS attack, a suicide car bomb went off outside a security office operated by the Syrian opposition in a village eight kilometers (five miles) north of al-Bab, killing 60 people. Most of those killed in Sousian were civilians who had gathered seeking permits and escorts to return to al-Bab, a day after it was liberated from the extremist group, a Syrian military commander in the city told The Associated Press. At least six fighters were among those killed in the attack, according to Turkey’s Prime Minister, who spoke in Ankara.
Hours later, another car bomb attack was reported in Sousian, claiming the lives of at least eight, according to activist groups. There were no further details on the attack, and the Aleppo Media Center later removed the report from its website.
Despite the violence, Turkey’s chief of military staff said his country had “achieved the goals” it had set for its military operation in northern Syria. The Turkish military earlier announced that its troops and allied Syrian opposition fighters are in full control of al-Bab but that efforts to clear it of mines and explosive devices are continuing.
Gen. Hulusi Akar spoke during a visit to the border with Syria, a day after Turkish troops and Turkey-backed opposition forces captured the town.
He did not say, however, if Turkey would end its operations in northern Syria or if it would move on to liberate other areas.
The Turkish military said that it currently controls 1,925 square kilometers (743 square miles) in northern Syria since its incursion there last August. The Turkey-backed operations have aimed to create a safe zone along the border, deterring from its borders Islamic State militants as well as Kurdish rebels it sees as an extension of its own insurgent group.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials have spoken of plans to move the Turkish forces east toward the town of Manbij that is held by U.S.-backed forces that include Syrian Kurdish fighters in a bid to oust them from the area. Turkish leaders have also suggested that Turkish troops could take part in operations to liberate the Islamic State group’s de facto capital, Raqqa.
Akar said that Turkey would provide “every kind of support” to help life in al-Bab return to normal and for the local population to return to their homes.
On Friday, civilians attempting to return to al-Bab were hardest hit.
According to Mohammed al-Tawil, a leading Syrian opposition fighter north of al-Bab, a suicide attacker blew up his small pick-up truck outside a security office in Sousian village, about 8 kilometers (5 miles) north of al-Bab. He said the explosion went off as the opposition fighters were organizing the return of civilians from al-Bab who had been displaced by the fighting for their town.
“These people have suffered a lot,” al-Tawil told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Sousian. “They have been waiting for this moment” to return home.
Al-Tawil, a member of the opposition al-Bab military council, said about four fighters manning the checkpoint had been killed in the attack. Al-Tawil, who was at the security office at the time of the explosion, said the rest of the casualties were civilians from al-Bab. Turkey’s Anadolu news agency said at least 41 wounded were taken for treatment in the Turkish border town of Kilis.
Al-Bab had been controlled by IS since late 2013. The militants finally retreated Thursday after more than two months of intense fighting.
Al-Bab had a prewar population of about 60,000, many of whom were displaced to neighboring areas, including during the most recent clashes.
Footage emerging from al-Bab showed a deserted town, badly damaged by the war. At least one of the streets appears completely wrecked, with buildings damaged or leveled on both sides. Trenches and earth berms have made other streets unpassable, and nearly every building shows some signs of artillery shelling or heavy machine-gun fire.
IS militants remain in control of areas around the town. The Sousian security office was supervising the issuing of permits and providing escorts for civilians wishing to return to al-Bab. Al-Tawil said at least two groups of about 150 civilians had already left early on Friday for al-Bab, accompanied by a mine sweeping unit run by Syrian opposition fighters.
Mustafa Sultan, a resident of al-Bab and a media activist who was in the town Thursday and Friday, said it was laden with land mines and remains largely deserted. There were a number of explosions in the town because of mines. Another activist, Majid al-Halabi, said a land mine went off in al-Bab Friday killing one and injuring three. The Observatory said at least seven opposition fighters have been killed since Thursday in the town by land mines left behind by IS — a trademark of the retreating militants.
A second explosion was reported south of al-Bab, where two Turkish soldiers were killed, Turkey’s military said. The soldiers were killed when an explosive device went off as they were removing land mines, the military said. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights corroborated the report, saying the device went off near Tadif, an IS-controlled town south of al-Bab. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, however, called the explosion a “suicide attack.” It was not immediately possible to reconcile the accounts.
The deaths Friday bring to 70 the total number of Turkish soldiers killed in Syria since August.
Meanwhile, the U.N. envoy for Syria has kicked off his second day of meetings aimed to reach a political solution to end the country’s war by hosting a delegation from the government of President Bashar Assad.