ISTANBUL, May 16, (Agencies): Turkish authorities on Monday detained seven suspected members of the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, including figures described as a senior leader and an “executioner”, the state-run Anatolia news agency said.
The seven suspects were detained during raids on addresses in the eastern region of Elazig. Large numbers of documents were also seized, it added.
Anatolia said that the suspected “executioner” — named only as F.S. — had carried out several killings in Syria on behalf of the group.
Over the last two years, IS has carried out execution-style killings in Syria of locals and foreign hostages as a warning and as part of its aggressive propaganda efforts.
The Dogan news agency said that the suspected jihadists had come from Syria to Elazig with the aim of attracting new recruits for the group.
No further details were given on the suspects.
Turkey was long accused by its Western partners of not doing enough against the threat of IS, even as it seized territory in Syria right up to the Turkish border.
Turkey always insisted it was making every effort to ensure security on the border.
But after several deadly attacks on Turkish soil blamed on jihadists, Ankara has noticeably stepped up a clampdown on jihadists inside the country.
According to figures published by Anatolia earlier this month, Turkey has placed under arrest 454 IS suspects, including 190 in the last four months alone.
Turkish armed forces have also launched near daily artillery strikes on IS targets inside Syria after the border town of Kilis was repeatedly hit by deadly rocket fire.
Turkish and US-led coalition forces struck Islamic State targets north of the Syrian city of Aleppo on Sunday, killing 27 fighters, state-run Anadolu Agency and other media reported.
Turkish artillery and rocket launchers fired into Syria while warplanes from the US-led coalition carried out three separate air campaigns, Anadolu said on Monday, citing military sources.
Five fortified defence posts and two gun posts were destroyed, while 27 fighters were killed in areas less than 10 km (6.2 miles) from Turkey’s Syria border.
Turkish and coalition forces have carried out a series of such strikes recently to prevent further attacks on the Turkish border town of Kilis, which lies just across the frontier from Islamic State-controlled territory in Syria, and has been regularly struck by rockets in recent weeks.
The United States and Turkey have for months discussing a military plan to drive Islamic State from the border.
Powerful blasts rocked a key gas field in central Syria on Monday, with a monitor saying they were caused by the Islamic State group blowing up pumping stations.
The Shaer gas field — one of the biggest in the central province of Homs — has been the site of fierce fighting between IS jihadists and Syrian government loyalists.
“There were three huge explosions there carried out by IS on Monday,” said Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Abdel Rahman said IS was believed to have blown up several of Shaer’s pumping stations. He had no immediate word on casualties.
The explosions reportedly even shook Palmyra, the ancient oasis city about 50 kms (30 miles) southeast of Shaer, according to reports posted on Twitter.
Syria’s army recaptured Palmyra from IS on March 27, after about 10 months of jihadist rule over the city.
IS seized the Shaer field last week, but Syrian armed forces and pro-government militias have fought hard to get it back.
Turkish shopkeeper Mehmet Baykal knew he had less than 10 seconds to dive under his desk when he heard another rocket being fired from Islamic State-held territory across the border in Syria.
Once a safe haven for tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, this tiny Turkish border town has now become a frontline in its war. So frequent is the rocket fire across what is in effect also NATO’s front line that residents know instinctively how long they have to take cover.
“It feels like a powerful earthquake. The ground shakes with pressure and then it is dust everywhere,” Baykal, 45, who has lived all his life in Kilis, said as he stood on its main shopping street, several of its stores shuttered.
“Kilis never knew what terror was. We opened our homes to those who fled war. But now the war is at our doorstep.”
The town has been hit by rockets from a patch of Syria controlled by Islamic State more than 70 times since January, killing 21 people including children, in what security officials say has gone from accidental spillover to deliberate targeting.
Some houses have been reduced to rubble. Others, their rooms exposed to the open air where walls have collapsed, are still inhabited. Streets are largely deserted and schools are on an informal break as families refuse to send their children.
“I say goodbye to my wife every night before I go to bed, in case I don’t make it to the morning,” said Resul Sezer, whose five-year-old granddaughter was killed two weeks ago when a rocket struck the house she was standing outside.
“The talk in the tea house every day is where the rocket might fall today,” he said. “We want the state to do something.”
Turkey, a NATO member, EU aspirant and part of the US-led coalition against Islamic State, has stepped up retaliatory fire into northern Syria in recent weeks. But security sources say it is difficult to hit the militants, sometimes firing from the back of vehicles, with the heavy artillery stationed on the border.
Coalition air strikes have increasingly targeted militant positions close to the Turkish border and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last month that US mobile rocket launchers would soon arrive. But so far there has been no concrete sign of the assistance arriving.
In Kilis, frustration with President Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling AK Party is starting to boil over. Police used tear gas to disperse dozens of residents protesting last month after a rocket attack killed one person and wounded 26.
“Where is the state?” said Omer Ciloglu, an AKP supporter and party member, standing in what was left of his third-floor apartment after the building was hit by a rocket.
“Nobody from the state called me. Nobody told me ‘do not leave your hometown, we are with you’. Instead they say do not gather, do not protest,” he said.
Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu say Turkey is taking every necessary measure to secure its border, a promise echoed by Kilis mayor Hasan Kara.
“This is hardly Turkey’s problem alone,” Kara told Reuters in his office in Kilis. “Unless this bog of terrorism is dried up … this problem will continue to hit Kilis but it will also strike other capitals in Europe too,” he said.
Turkey has long pushed for creation of a safe zone in northern Syria but the idea has found little support from Western allies. The United States and Turkey have for months been discussing a military plan to drive Islamic State from the border but there has been little concrete sign of progress.
Earlier in Syria’s war, Turkey, eager to see President Bashar al-Assad toppled, faced criticism from Western allies for failing to prevent foreign fighters crossing its border and joining what would become Islamic State. But, as well as the threat to its border, Turkey has been hit by a spate of suicide bombings blamed on the militant group this year.
The Syrian government allowed hundreds of students to leave two besieged areas near Damascus to take their year-end exams over the weekend, even as other suburbs of the capital came under fierce attack.
The government is eager to show that it is still providing services, salaries, and pensions amid a devastating civil war, including to areas it does not control.
On Saturday and Sunday, government forces allowed around 360 students from the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Moadamiyeh and 68 students from the rebel-held town of Madaya to travel to government areas to sit their high school exams, according to activists and state media.
Both Moadamiyeh and Madaya are besieged by government forces, who have allowed relief groups only limited access — despite reports that civilians have died from starvation and lack of medical care.
The ninth-graders from Madaya who left to the nearby government-held town of Rawda Saturday were searched thoroughly by soldiers at the first checkpoint outside the town, according to Wafiqa Hashem, a teacher at Madaya’s Mohammad Nassif secondary school.
It was the first time they were allowed to leave the town in 302 days, Madaya media activist Abdelwahab Ahmad said.
The siege will almost certainly leave a mark on the exam results.
Eighty percent of students have missed stretches of class this past school year because of hunger or cold, Hashem said. She said during the worst periods of the siege only five or six students would attend class at a time. Doctors Without Borders reported 16 siege-related deaths in Madaya in January alone.
“They were fighting for their lives, but they will make all efforts” to pass their exams, said Hashem.
Schools also struggled with power cuts and other shortages.
Since the government began allowing aid into the town earlier this year, student health improved. “They are playing sports again,” said Hashem. But teachers have not had time to catch up on their curriculums.
The United Nations and international relief organizations are calling on the government, the Islamic State group, and rebels to allow sustained and unfettered access to the nearly half a million people — the vast majority of them civilians — trapped in besieged areas around the country.