Middle East

Turkey to curb some troop movement in Syria as coronavirus cases jump

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey said on Sunday it would minimize its troop movements in operation zones in neighboring Syria in response to the coronavirus outbreak as the Turkish death toll and infections in the country rose.

Turkey’s death toll from the COVID-19 disease has risen by 73 to 574 in the last 24 hours, with new confirmed cases jumping by 3,135 to total 27,069, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said.

Turkey, which is ninth globally in coronavirus cases, has curbed much social movement, mostly sealed its borders and shuttered businesses. In the latest step, the defense ministry said it had set up a new unit to battle the spread of the disease.

Troops deployed in Syria will now enter and exit operation areas only with the permission of the head of the army, the ministry said. “Thus, the movement of staff and troops is minimized, unless it is mandatory,” it added.

Turkey’s military backs Syrian rebels in the northwestern Idlib region where it ramped up a deployment earlier this year. Fighting has calmed since Ankara agreed a ceasefire with Moscow, which backs Syrian government forces, a month ago.

In Idlib, where about a million people have been displaced by the conflict in recent months, doctors fear the worst if the coronavirus hits, given hospitals lie in ruins and camps overflow with people devastated by nine years of war.

Turkey’s defence ministry said doctors had been sent to operation areas in part to conduct training related to the severe respiratory disease. The Turkish military also oversees Syrian border regions to the east of Idlib.

At home, Turkey’s outbreak has surged in the last few weeks, with new cases climbing daily. On Friday the government issued a stay-at-home order for most Turks under 20, on top of the existing order for over-65s, plus one for mandatory mask use in crowded public places, shops and workplaces.

On Sunday, the government said residents could apply online for five free masks per week delivered via mail.


Reporting by Jonathan Spicer and Irem Koca; Editing by Pravin Char

Image: Syrians climb on a Turkish tank in Neyrab, Sunday, March 15, 2020 as they protest agreement on joint Turkish and Russian patrols in northwest Syria. (AP Photo/Ghaith Alsayed)

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