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Syria and monitoring group blast Turkey over civilian deaths

BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian government and an opposition monitoring group condemned Friday what they called Turkey's "crimes" against the Syrian people in the northern town of al-Bab that is controlled by the Islamic State group. Meanwhile, a top Turkish military official said most of the town is under control of allied Syrian opposition fighters.

Turkish troops and allied opposition fighters have been on the offensive in al-Bab for weeks trying to take it from IS, a grueling battle that has killed hundreds of people so far. On Feb. 7, the Turkish offensive on the town intensified in an attempt to capture it from the extremists but the push has been slow because of fierce resistance from IS fighters.

The battle has been difficult for Turkish troops who have lost some 65 soldiers since they entered Syria in August, most of them in al-Bab, which has been under attack since mid-November. Turkish forces have been deployed in Syria since August with the aim of clearing a border patch of IS militants and Syrian Kurdish fighters that Ankara considers related to its own Kurdish insurgency.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Turkish shelling and airstrikes have killed 45 people in al-Bab since Wednesday. It said the dead include 14 women and 18 children. "The crimes committed against civilians in the city of al-Bab are continuing after the killers of civilians have permitted shedding the blood of Syrians," the Observatory said. It said that since the operation against al-Bab and nearby villages began on Nov. 13, some 430 civilians have been killed in the area.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry on Friday condemned what it called Turkey's violations of Syria's sovereignty. The condemnation was expressed in letters addressed to the U.N. secretary-general and president of the U.N. Security Council. The letter will be "studied and responded to accordingly" by the U.N., said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres's deputy spokesman, Farhan Haq.

The IS-linked Aamaq news agency released a video said to be taken in al-Bab showing men, boys and infants being treated for severe wounds inside a clinic. The video shows a child crying while lying on a hospital bed with a severe wound after his left arm was cut from under the shoulder. Another child had a severe stomach wound that killed him. A third infant had the upper part of his skull blown off removing the top of the child's head. The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other reporting of the events by The Associated Press.

The violence in al-Bab came as Turkey's military said the Turkish and U.S. military chiefs of staff have "confirmed" the need to fight terror groups in Syria and Iraq, including the Islamic State group and Kurdish militants.

A military statement said U.S. Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford met with his Turkish counterpart, Gen. Hulusi Akar, on Friday at Incirlik air base, which is home to warplanes of the U.S.-led coalition that is battling the extremist group. Turkey also carries out airstrikes against Kurdish militants' bases in northern Iraq.

The military statement said Akar told Dunford that Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian fighters had "to a great extent" taken control of the IS-held Syrian town of al Bab. It made no reference to a possible joint operation to retake the IS stronghold of Raqqa, which Turkey's defense minister said would be discussed.

The Observatory said IS fighters are still in "full control" of al-Bab. As the fighting in al-Bab area intensified, the Russian military said that its strategic bombers have struck IS positions to the east. The Defense Ministry said in a statement that the Tu-95 bombers that flew from their base in Russia launched long-range cruise missiles Friday at the IS facilities near the group's main stronghold of Raqqa.

It added that the missiles successfully hit the IS training camps and a control facility of one of the militant units. The ministry said fighter jets from a Russian air base in Syria escorted the bombers.

In northern Syria, the Observatory and a member of a jihadi faction said members of an extremist group in northwestern Syria that fought fierce battles against al-Qaida will be evacuated to areas controlled by IS.

The Observatory said hundreds of members of the Jund al-Aqsa group will hand over their heavy weapons to the Turkistan Islamic Party, consisting mainly of minority Uighurs from China, before heading to IS-controlled areas with their light weapons.

The deal comes after days of fighting between Jund al-Aqsa and the al-Qaida-led coalition known as the Levant Liberation Committee left 125 fighters dead on both sides. A Jund al-Aqsa member who goes by the name of Karmo told the AP that they were given six days to leave, adding that members who plan to stay will have to pledge allegiance to the Turkistan Islamic Party. He said he plans to join TIP.

Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.