Turkish soldiers and Islamic State fighters exchanged fire near the southern Turkey town of Kilis on Thursday, the first time the two sides have battled one another since the Islamic State seized much of the Syrian side of the long Turkey-Syria border last year.
At least one Turkish soldier was killed and two others were wounded, the Turkish army announced.
The fighting broke out as Kurdish separatists for the second day attacked Turkish police officers, killing one and wounding another, in what they said was retaliation of alleged Turkish collusion with an Islamic State bomber who killed 32 people Monday in the Turkish border town of Suruc.
The battle with the Islamic State fighters and the murder of a police officer by Kurdish separatists underscored the complicated political currents now surfacing in Turkey after more than four years of warfare in Syria.
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While Turkey has taken in nearly 2 million Syrian refugees, it’s only rarely been the scene of violence. But that changed dramatically with Monday’s suicide bombing, which targeted a group of Turkish and Kurdish activists who were collecting toys to take to Kobani, the Syrian Kurdish town that was targeted last year by the Islamic State.
On Wednesday, a unit of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, announced that it had assassinated two police officers in the border town of Ceylanpinar, accusing them of having collaborated with the Suruc bomber. Thursday’s police killing took place in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s Kurdish region.
Thursday’s clash with the Islamic State at Kilis began, local officials said, when a five-man Turkish military patrol encountered members of the Islamic State trying to bring a wounded comrade into Turkey for treatment – something that happens regularly. When the Turkish soldiers balked at letting them pass, the Islamic State militants opened fire, the officials said.
At least one Islamic State fighter was killed when the Turkish soldiers returned fire. The military said its forces recovered a rocket launcher and an assault rifle and that three Islamic State vehicles had been damaged severely.
In addition to the dead Turkish soldier, two members of the patrol were injured.
A Turkish official who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to divulge details of the operation said Turkey later dispatched four additional tanks to the area and sent combat jets over the Islamic State-controlled region of northern Syria. There were no plans, however, for Turkish troops to cross the border into Syria, the official said.
But the clash seemed certain to exacerbate tensions with the Islamic State, which has operated more or less unchallenged along the Turkish border since it began seizing territory on the Syrian side last year.
Turkey is a major transit point for foreigners wanting to join the Islamic State, and Turkish authorities are known to have contacts with the Islamic State. Turkish authorities negotiated the release of 46 Turkish diplomats who were captured when the Islamic State seized Mosul in Iraq last summer, and Turkey coordinated with the Islamic State earlier this year when it sent troops into Syria to evacuate the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire.
Turkey’s porous border was among the subjects President Barack Obama raised Wednesday in a phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to a statement from the White House.
Hours after the Obama-Erdogan exchange, a statement from the office of Turkey’s prime minister said the country’s Council of Ministers had approved spending $83 million to add fencing and walls along the border.
The statement, however, suggested there was little more Turkey could do to stop the flow of recruits to the Islamic State across the 560-mile frontier between the two countries.
The Turkish military already has assigned 50 percent of its manpower and 90 percent of its “tactical wheeled armored vehicles” to the border with Syria and had dug trenches and erected fences whose lengths are measured in miles, the statement said.
The statement added that 16,000 foreigners had been placed on a watch list barring them from entering Turkey and that 1,600 “foreign terrorist fighters from 83 different countries” had been captured and expelled. Expulsions in the first half of 2015, 570, already have exceeded the 520 recorded in all of 2014, the statement said.
The complicated politics of the area were also on display. Noting that Turkey estimated that Islamic State forces number between 40,000 and 70,000, it acknowledged that as many as 1,300 Turkish citizens had crossed into Syria to join the Islamic State. But a similar number, it noted, had joined Syria’s Democratic Union Party, or PYD, a Kurdish political party that the Turkish government considers an affiliate of the PKK.