Concern over executions

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In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, smoke billows from fires caused by Turkish bombardment in Tel Abyad, Syria, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019. A flag of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, flies on a pole. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

WASHINGTON, Oct 13, (Agencies): The United States is looking into reports that a Kurdish politician and captured Kurdish fighters were killed in northeastern Syria amid Turkey’s offensive, a State Department spokesman told Reuters on Sunday, adding that Washington found the reports disturbing.

On Saturday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based organization which reports on the war, said Turkey-backed groups had killed nine civilians, including Hervin Khalaf, secretary- general of the Future Syria Party. “We have seen reports of the killing of (Hervin) Khalaf … as well as several captured SDF fighters, the latter having been apparently shot while in the hands of Turkish Supported Armed Syrian Opposition elements,” a State Department spokesman said, referring to Turkey-backed rebels. “We find these reports to be extremely troubling, reflecting the overall destabilization of northeast Syria since the commencement of hostilities on Tuesday,” the spokesman said in an email. Khalaf had been returning from a meeting in Hasaka at the time of the attack in which her driver and an aide were also killed, said Hussein Omar, the Future Syria Party’s coordinator in Europe.

Party officials including Khalaf have had contacts with US officials since it was founded in 2018, he said. Asked about the accusation that Turkey-backed groups had killed Khalaf, the spokesman for the Turkey-backed National Army, which groups Syrian rebel factions, on Saturday said they had not made it as far as that area. “We condemn in the strongest of terms any mistreatment and extrajudicial execution of civilians or prisoners, and are looking further into these circumstances,” the US State Department spokesman said. Ankara launched the crossborder assault against the YPG militia on Wednesday after US President Donald Trump withdrew some US troops from the border region, opening of the biggest new fronts in years in an eight-year old civil war that has drawn in global powers.

Turkey says the YPG is a terrorist group aligned with Kurdish militants in Turkey and that it reserves the right to protect its borders. Turkey’s incursion has raised international alarm over its mass displacement of civilians and the possibility of Islamic State militants escaping from Kurdish prisons. The Kurdishled forces have been key allies for the United States in eliminating the jihadist group from northern Syria.

Trump’s administration has threatened Turkey with economic sanctions over potential targeting of civilians and has warned it not to allow any Islamic State militants to escape. Senior State Department official last week said Ankara should avoid any “disproportionate and inhumane” actions in northeast Syria, including ethnic cleansing and firing at civilians. Amid growing chaos in Syria, Trump has ordered all US troops to withdraw from the country’s north to avoid a bloody conflict between Turkey and US-backed Kurdish fighters that “gets worse by the hour,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Sunday.

Esper, who spoke in two TV interviews, did not say the approximately 1,000 US troops in Syria are leaving the country entirely. Trump’s national security team planned to meet later Sunday to assess the situation, Esper said, as US officials continue to urge Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to halt his incursion. Asked whether he thought Turkey, a NATO ally, would deliberately attack American troops in Syria, Esper said, “I don’t know whether they would or wouldn’t.” He cited an incident on Friday in which a small number of US troops fell under artillery fire at an observation post in the north.

Esper called that an example of “indiscriminate fire” coming close to Americans, adding it was unclear whether that was an accident. Esper said he spoke to Trump on Saturday night amid growing signs that the Turkish invasion, which began Wednesday, was growing more dangerous. “In the last 24 hours, we learned that they (the Turks) likely intend to expand their attack further south than originally planned – and to the west,” Esper said. The US also has come to believe that the Kurds are attempting to “cut a deal” with the Syrian army and Russia to counter the invading Turks, he said. As a result, Trump “directed that we begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria,” Esper said. Trump, in a tweet Sunday, said: “Very smart not to be involved in the intense fighting along the Turkish Border, for a change. Those that mistakenly got us into the Middle East Wars are still pushing to fight. They have no idea what a bad decision they have made. Why are they not asking for a Declaration of War?” Esper said he would not discuss a timeline for the US pullback, but said it would be done “as safely and quickly as possible.”

Esper did not say how many US troops will leave the north, but he says they represent most of the 1,000 troops in Syria. Hundreds of Islamic State supporters escaped from a holding camp in northern Syria on Sunday amid heavy clashes between invading Turkishled forces and Kurdish fighters, and Trump ordered all US troops to withdraw from the north to avoid getting caught in the fighting.

The twin developments reflected the rapidly growing chaos in Syria in the week since Trump ordered American forces in the region to step aside, leaving the Kurds wide open to attack from Turkey. A US military official said that the situation was “deteriorating rapidly.” The official, who was not authorized to disclose operational details and spoke on condition of anonymity, said US troops on the ground were unable to travel on the ground without a “high risk” of confrontation with Turkey- backed forces. The danger to American forces was shown on Friday, when a small number of US troops came under Turkish artillery fire at an observation post in the north. No Americans were hurt. Esper said it was unclear whether that was an accident. The heavy fighting Sunday reached the displaced-persons camp in Ein Eissa, some 35 kms (20 miles) south of the border, which is home to some 12,000 people, including around 1,000 wives and widows of Islamic State fighters and their children, held in a special detention area. The Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria said in a statement that 950 IS supporters escaped after attacking guards and storming the gates. It was not immediately possible to confirm that figure.

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