Turkey blamed the Syrian regime for the deaths of two of its soldiers on Thursday in the rebel stronghold of Idlib, as tensions also escalated with Moscow which accused Ankara of “supporting terrorists”.

The situation in Idlib province in northwestern Syria has grown increasingly volatile in recent weeks, with a Syrian offensive triggering a humanitarian crisis as close to a million civilians fled the violence.

Turkey built 12 military observation posts in the region as part of a 2018 deal with Russia to prevent a regime onslaught, but its forces have come under increasing attack.

Turkey blamed the two deaths on Thursday on a Syrian jet.

It brings the number of Turkish personnel killed in clashes with Syrian forces this month to 16. Five others were wounded on Thursday, the defence ministry said.

Earlier this week, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned of an “imminent” operation against Damascus unless it pulled its forces back behind Turkish positions by the end of February.

According to the defence ministry, it retaliated against regime forces on Thursday, with “over 50 regime elements, five tanks, two armoured personnel carriers, two armoured pickups and one howitzer destroyed.”

Clashes were also reported between regime forces and Turkey-backed rebels in Nayrab, between the provincial capital of Idlib and the town of Saraqeb, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Last year, Turkey had killed 28 Kurdish militants in retaliation to an attack which left three Turkish soldiers dead.

The PKK, regarded as a terrorist group by Turkey, the US and the EU, has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.

Turkey has retaliated against the attacks under the rules of engagement and its right to legitimate self-defence, killing nearly 200 Assad military personnel since last week.

Idlib has been a stronghold of the opposition and anti-government armed groups since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

In September 2018, Ankara and Moscow reached an agreement in Sochi, Russia, to turn Idlib into a de-escalation zone in which acts of aggression are expressly prohibited.

Turkey launched a cross-border assault on Kurdish fighters after the US decided to withdraw troops from Syria, a move that was criticised by the Republicans, with some terming it a “betrayal” of the Kurds.

The Syrian army entered the city of Tabqa in the northern countryside of Raqqa province, as part of its move to enter Kurdish-held areas to counter the ongoing Turkish assault in the region.

More than 50 people, including civilians, have been killed last week as the Turkish offensive in Syria, which was launched by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan aimed at pushing the Kurdish forces away from its border.

(With inputs from agency)