ANKARA, Turkey – Hundreds of Turkish troops backed by tanks took part in an overnight operation into neighboring Syria to evacuate dozens of besieged soldiers guarding an Ottoman tomb and remove the remains amid fears the shrine was threatened by Islamic State militants.
The mission late Saturday, saving Turkish soldiers reportedly stuck for months at the tomb of the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, was the first such major military incursion by Turkey since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said nearly 600 Turkish soldiers on some 100 tanks and armored personnel carriers crossed into Syria near the border town of Kobani late Saturday, as drones and airplanes flew reconnaissance missions overhead.
One group traveled to the tomb, some 22 miles from Turkey on the banks of the Euphrates River in Syria's embattled Aleppo province, he said. Another group seized an area only 200 yards from the Turkish border in Syria's Ashma region to be the new home for the tomb, according to a statement from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's office.
One soldier was killed in an "accident" during the operation, Turkey's military said.
"Before the Turkish flag was lowered at (the tomb), the Turkish flag started to be waved at another location in Syria," Davutoglu said. He said troops destroyed the complex once housing the tomb.
Turkish media later showed nationalistic images of three Turkish soldiers raising the country's flag at the new site.
The U.S.-led coalition forces were informed of the Turkish operation after its launch to prevent any casualties, Davutoglu said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, while in London, spoke by telephone Sunday with Turkey's foreign minister and expressed condolences over the Turkish soldier killed during the operation, the State Department said. It said the U.S. and Turkey were in close and continuing coordination on developments in Syria, including intelligence sharing.
Syria's Foreign Ministry denounced the Turkish operation, calling it a "flagrant aggression." In a statement carried by the state news agency, it also said that the mission demonstrated "the depth of ties" between Turkey and the Islamic State group. Syria routinely accuses Turkey of supporting the extremist group.
The ministry said Ankara informed the Syrian Consulate in Istanbul ahead of the operation but did not wait for approval from Damascus.
Iran's deputy foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, said there is no justification for Turkey's military action. Tehran is a close ally of Syria.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara had notified Syria before the operation that it was vacating the tomb temporarily, and that it would return to the area when it is "ready" to do so.
"We got permission from no one, we conducted it with our own initiative," he said.
Rumors had swirled for months that the soldiers stationed at the tomb had been besieged by militants from the Islamic State group, which hold a third of Syria and neighboring Iraq in their self-declared caliphate. Some 40 Turkish soldiers once guarded the tomb, making them a target for IS and other militant groups in Syria's long-running civil war, though the overnight operation apparently saw no fighting.
The tomb housed the remains of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire. The site along the Euphrates River is revered by Turkey, a strongly nationalist country whose rights there stem from a 1921 treaty with France, then the colonial power in Syria. The Ottoman Empire collapsed in the early 20th century after World War I.
In the 1970s, Turkey moved the mausoleum to its last location because the old site at a castle further south in Syria was to be inundated by the waters of a new dam.
Shah, a Turkic leader, is believed to have drowned in the Euphrates in the 13th century. His followers headed north into what is today Turkey, where they established the Ottoman Empire. Some historians question official accounts about Shah's tomb, saying they might have been retrospectively concocted to enrich an imperial identity for Turks.
Turkey has wanted Syrian President Bashar Assad overthrown and has backed some rebels fighting against him. Earlier this week, Turkey signed an agreement with the U.S. to train and arm Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State group.
With its 1,200-kilometer (750-mile) border with Syria, Turkey could be a major player in the fight against the Islamic State group. But negotiations with the U.S. over what to do about the militants have been fraught with disagreement -- with Turkey insisting that the coalition needs to also target the Assad government.
Turkey also has had concerns over some of the Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State group in Kobani. It views the Kurds fighting in Syria as an extension of the Kurdistan Worker's Party, which has waged a 30-year insurgency against the Turkish government and is designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. and NATO.