Turkish soldiers return from Syria to Turkey with tanks after a military operation at the Syrian border as part of their offensive against the Islamic State militant group on August 2016. Turkish armed forces and allied Syrian rebels have almost total control of al-Bab, Turkey's defense minister said Tursday. Photo by Sedat Suna/EPA
Feb. 23 (UPI) -- Turkey's armed forces and Syrian rebels have gained near full control of al-Bab in northern Syrian from the Islamic State, according to Turkey's defense minister.
Since last year, the forces have tried to oust the Islamic State from the city. Turkish fighters first cleared the militants from Turkey's border before launching an assault on al-Bab in December.
"Almost all of al-Bab is under control now, and a sweep operation is ongoing," Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık told reporters in the Aegean coastal city of Izmir. "When the operation is over, we will be able to say that Al-Bab has been completely cleared of Daesh [Islamic State] elements."
Fasik noted "it's been a long time since we entered al-Bab."
"We are advancing cautiously due to the many mines and explosives left behind," he said.
He said Free Syrian Army fighters -- a coalition of rebels -- were clearing the town of landmines and booby traps planted in the area by the militants.
Rebel forces were still facing "a lot of risky work ahead," a Turkish defense official told Al Jazeera.
A total of 733 square miles in northern Syria have now been cleared of armed groups, Turkey's state-run Anadolu News Agency said.
Işık reaffirmed that Turkey was ready to join international coalition forces to take the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the extremist group in Syria. But Turkey does't want the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party involved in the offensive.
Also Thursday, a new round of peace talks between the sides over the six-year-old Syrian war launched.
U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura convened his first morning meeting with the delegation of the Syrian government, headed by Bashar al-Ja'afari, in Geneva.
"Am I expecting a breakthrough? No, I am not expecting a breakthrough," de Mistura said. He said he best hopes for "momentum" toward further talks.
Cease-fire discussions in Astana, Kazakhstan, were coordinated largely by Turkey and Russia, whose air power has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that Moscow hopes for a political settlement in Syria to end the "terrorist malaise."