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Battle for Syria's al-Bab intensifies, 14 Turkish soldiers killed - army

ANKARA (Reuters) - Clashes between Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and Islamic State militants intensified around the northern Syrian town of al-Bab on Wednesday, killing 14 Turkish soldiers and 138 jihadists, the army said.

The fighting, in which 33 Turkish soldiers were also wounded, is some of the deadliest yet in Turkey’s nearly four-month-old “Euphrates Shield” operation in northern Syria.

“The operation to control al Bab, which is being besieged under the Euphrates Shield Operation, is ongoing,” the army said in a statement.

The military had said earlier that the rebel forces, which have been launching attacks on Islamic State fighters in al-Bab for weeks, had largely established control over the strategic area around the town’s hospital.

“Once this area has been seized, Daesh’s dominance of al-Bab will to a large extent be broken,” it said in an earlier statement on Wednesday, using an Arabic acronym for the group. Islamic State was using suicide bombers and vehicle-borne explosives intensively, it added.

Turkey’s military was pressing on with the operation after its foreign minister and his Russian and Iranian counterparts said in Moscow on Tuesday that they were ready to help broker a deal to end Syria’s almost six-year-old war.

The talks came as Syrian government forces neared their biggest victory in the conflict, closing in on the last rebel enclave in the long-embattled city of Aleppo.

Some 30 Turkish soldiers have been killed in the course of the operation, which was launched to push Islamic State and a Kurdish militia away from Syria’s border with Turkey.

The military had said that some of the intensive fighting on Wednesday had been centred on a hospital area, on the slope of a hill overlooking al-Bab that had long been used by Islamic State as a weapons and ammunition store.

Turkish air strikes on Wednesday destroyed 67 Islamic State targets, the military said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, reported fierce clashes at the southwestern edges of al-Bab, with some rebel advances there. It said that Turkish air strikes in the area had killed seven people in al-Bab.

Islamic State has killed a total of 42 fighters from Euphrates Shield, including at least 10 Turkish soldiers, the Observatory added.

The Euphrates Shield operation is largely focused on combating Islamic State, but Ankara is also determined to prevent the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as a hostile force, from linking cantons it controls along the border.

Additional reporting by Ellen Francis and Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Writing by Daren Butler and David Dolan; editing by Ralph Boulton; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Gareth Jones