AZAZ, Syria, Jan 21, (Agencies): Turkish ground forces advanced into northern Syria’s Afrin region on Sunday, Ankara said after launching artillery and air strikes on a US-backed Kurdish militia it aims to sweep from its border. The Syrian-Kurdish YPG militia, supported by the United States but seen as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, said it had repulsed the Turkish forces and their allies after fierce clashes.
Intense Turkish artillery fire and air strikes continued to hit some villages, the YPG said, and fierce battles raged to the north and west of Afrin against Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies, said Birusk Hasaka, the YPG spokesman in Afrin. Turkey opened a new front in the nearly seven-year-old Syrian war on Saturday when, under what Ankara has called “Operation Olive Branch”, Turkish artillery and air strikes pounded YPG positions in Afrin.
Turkey is targeting the USbacked fighters at a time when ties with ally Washington appear close to breaking point. Turkey sees the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has carried out a deadly, three-decade insurgency in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast. The United States is backing the YPG in Syria, seeing it as an effective partner in the fight against Islamic State. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the Turkish military, NATO’s second-largest, would create a 30-km (19-mile) “safe zone” in the region, according to broadcaster HaberTurk.
“Our jets took off and started bombing. And now the ground operation is underway. Now we see how the YPG … are fl eeing in Afrin,” President Tayyip Erdogan said. “We will chase them. God willing, we will complete this operation very quickly.” Around 25,000 Free Syrian Army rebels are taking part in the operation with the goal of recapturing Arab towns and villages seized by the YPG almost two years ago, a rebel commander said. Major Yasser Abdul Rahim said the rebels did not seek to enter the mainly Kurdish city of Afrin but encircle it and expel the YPG, which controls it.
A main goal of the military operation was to recapture Tel Rifaat, a town southeast of Afrin, and a string of Arab villages the YPG captured from rebels in February 2016, driving out tens of thousands of inhabitants, Abdul Rahim told Reuters. A rocket fired across the border from Syria hit the Turkish border town of Reyhanli on Sunday, killing a Syrian national and wounding 32 people, broadcaster NTV reported the town’s mayor as saying. CNN Turk said three rockets in total had been fired across the border towards Reyhanli.
Erdogan said some of Turkey’s allies had provided the YPG with 2,000 plane shipments and 5,000 truckloads of ammunition, comments that appeared to be aimed at the United States. The attacks follow weeks of warnings against the YPG in Syria from Erdogan and his ministers. Turkey has been particularly outraged by an announcement that the United States planned to train 30,000 personnel in parts of northeast Syria under the control of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters anyone who opposed the action in Afrin was siding with terrorists and would be treated accordingly.
Raids kill eight
Turkish air raids killed eight civilians on Sunday in the northern Syrian enclave of Afrin, according to a war monitor and a spokesman for the Kurdish forces that control the area. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the dead, who included at least one child, were killed in air strikes on the village of Jalbara. “Eight civilians were killed in missile strikes on a chicken farm where they were living,” said Birusk Hasakeh, a spokesman for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin, blaming Turkish warplanes. In pictures sent by Hasakeh to AFP, Kurdish Red Crescent rescuers could be seen retrieving bloodied bodies from a collapsed concrete structure and laying them on orange stretchers. It was the second day of “Operation Olive Branch,” an offensive by Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies against the YPG-held Afrin region.