Beirut: Turkish soldiers launched an overnight raid into neighboring Syria, evacuating dozens of besieged troops guarding an Ottoman tomb and moving the crypt on Sunday back to Turkey after ceremonially planting the country's crescent-and-star flag.
In a one-line report on the incident, Syria's state news agency denounced what it called a "blatant aggression" by Turkey.
The mission, saving Turkish soldiers reportedly stuck for months at the tomb of the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, saw hundreds of troops backed by tanks cross the border near the border town of Kobani once besieged by the Islamic State group.
Turkey was widely criticized for not intervening for months in the Kobani battle, which finally saw Kurdish fighters backed by US-led airstrikes push out the extremists.
"We had given the Turkish armed forces a directive to protect our spiritual values and the safety of our armed forces personnel," Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in televised remarks.
Nearly 600 Turkish soldiers on some 100 tanks and armored personnel carriers crossed into Syria on Saturday night, as drones and airplanes flew reconnaissance missions overhead, Davutoglu said Sunday.
One group traveled to the tomb, some 35 kilometers from Turkey on the banks of the Euphrates River in Syria's embattled Aleppo province, Davutoglu said. Another group seized an area only 200 meters (yards) from the Turkish border in Syria's Ashma region, 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, without elaborating. Turkish media later showed nationalistic images of three Turkish soldiers raising the country's flag at the new site.
"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.
The US-led coalition forces were informed of the Turkish operation after its launch to prevent any casualties, Davutoglu said. US officials offered no immediate comment.
There had been rumors 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 the Islamic State group and other militants in Syria's long-running civil war, though the overnight operation apparently saw no fighting.