Turkey enters Syria to remove precious Suleyman Shah tomb

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Footage shows Turkish forces travelling back across the border after the evacuation, as Selin Gerit reports

Hundreds of Turkish forces in armoured vehicles have entered war-torn northern Syria to evacuate troops guarding a historic tomb, demolishing it and moving the remains to a different site.

The remains of Suleyman Shah, who died in the 13th Century, were moved to a site in Syria closer to the border.

Turkey considered the shrine sovereign territory.

Islamic State (IS) militants in the area had threatened to attack it last year.

The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which has lost control over much of northern Syria as a result of the country's civil war, condemned the incursion as "flagrant aggression".

It said that Turkey had informed its Istanbul consulate about the operation but had not waited for Syria's consent.

Suleyman Shah, who lived from about 1178 to 1236, was grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman empire, Osman I.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his government and the armed forces had carried out a "successful operation which is beyond all kinds of appreciation".

Image source, AP
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Turkish armour swept through the Syrian border city of Kobane late on Saturday
Image source, EPA
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Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (right) was kept abreast of the operation by the army in Ankara
Image source, Getty Images
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The Turkish flag was raised at the new burial site near Esmesi in the darkness
Image source, AFP
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A tank could be seen guarding the new site in daylight on Sunday

All the relics at the tomb and the Turkish soldiers who had been guarding it had been brought out "safe and sound", he said, and the existing mausoleum was destroyed.

One soldier was killed accidentally in the overnight raid, the military said.

The remains of Suleyman Shah have been moved to a hill north of the village of Esmesi close to the Turkish border, in an area under Turkish military control.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said he hoped the remains could be returned to the old burial site eventually.

The operation unfolded peacefully, beginning on Saturday at about 21:00 local time (19:00 GMT) and ending on Sunday morning, with 572 soldiers involved, Mr Davutoglu said.

A convoy of 39 tanks and 57 armoured vehicles streamed through Kobane, the city which Syrian Kurdish fighters retook last month from IS.

Selin Girit, BBC News, on Turkish border with Syria

Image source, Reuters
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The shrine, pictured here in 2006, is in an area that has seen heavy fighting

The tomb of Suleiman Shah was the one and only Turkish enclave abroad, in accordance with a treaty signed in 1921. This was the burial site of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the Ottoman Empire's founder Osman I - which meant it had historical significance too.

Turkey was concerned with the rising Islamic State threat in the area. In March 2014, IS threatened to attack the site unless Turkish troops guarding the tomb were withdrawn in three days; but such an attack did not take place. If the tomb had in fact come under attack, that would have provoked serious reaction from Turkey.

In August 2012, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan - then PM - had warned that an act against the tomb would be considered "an attack on our territory, as well an attack on Nato land". Last year, the Turkish parliament authorised the use of force against IS militants. Commentators in Turkish media say the fact that the tomb is now moved and soldiers are evacuated is a relief for Turkey.

They travelled some 35km (20 miles) south to the tomb on the banks of the Euphrates river, where Suleyman Shah is believed to have drowned.

Soldiers raised a Turkish flag at the new grave site.

Mr Davutoglu was kept abreast of the operation at army headquarters in Ankara.

The tomb had been permanently guarded by a contingent of about 40 soldiers, who rotated periodically.

The site is part of Turkish territory, according to a treaty signed in 1921 (in French) that gave Turkey the right to station guards and fly its flag there.

When the treaty was signed the tomb and legal enclave were some 80km south of their current location but were moved after the original site was flooded by the creation of the reservoir Lake Assad in 1974.

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Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu: "We didn't get permission from anyone. The decision was taken, and the order was given, by the Turkish government"

Since driving IS out of Kobane in January, the Kurdish Popular Protection Units and rebels have taken a number of surrounding villages.

They are now said to be only 25km from Tal Abyad - the strategically important border town east of Kobane that is used by IS militants to cross into Turkey.

IS has seized larges swathes in Syria and Iraq, proclaiming a caliphate.