The Turkish army has dropped leaflets on the Islamic State-held city of al-Bab in Syria urging civilians to seek shelter, as rebels backed by Turkish tanks and warplanes close in on the city.
The leaflets, dropped on the last urban stronghold of Islamic State in the northern Aleppo countryside, suggest an imminent assault after hundreds of Arab and Turkmen fighters seized at least two villages west of al-Bab last week.
“Dear people of al-Bab, do not let the Daesh (Islamic State) terrorist organization, which serves the devil, use you,” read the leaflet, which is written in Arabic, according to a statement from the Turkish armed forces on Monday.
“Help us, and bring your loved ones to safety as soon as possible, until we clean your land of these traitors. With God’s will, victory is near,” it said.
Last week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the Turkish-backed rebels had closed in on al-Bab, in an advance that potentially pits them against both Kurdish fighters and forces allied to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose front lines lie nearby.
The city is of strategic importance to Turkey, partly because Kurdish-dominated militias have also been trying to take it from the jihadists. Turkey is determined to prevent the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as a hostile force, from joining up cantons it controls along the Turkish border, fearing that would embolden Kurdish separatism at home.
In recent days, Turkey has ramped up its air strikes in northern Syria as part of its almost four-month-old “Euphrates Shield” operation with the rebels, aiming to push the jihadists and Kurdish militia fighters away from its border.
Turkish warplanes struck 29 Islamic State targets in northern Syria on Sunday while four militants and two Turkish-backed Syrian rebels were killed in clashes on the ground, the military said on Monday.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said Manbij, a town which was wrested from Islamic State in August by US-backed Kurdish-led forces, is the next target for the “Euphrates Shield” operation after it seizes al-Bab. Manbij lies some 50 km (30 miles) east of al-Bab.