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Turkish airstrikes kill 36 in Afrin

Turkish forces and army helicopters advance towards the village of Al-Maabatli in the Afrin region in the northwestern Aleppo province countryside as part of the ongoing offensive on March 2, 2018 AFP

BEIRUT, March 3, (Agencies): Turkish air strikes killed at least 36 pro-regime fighters backing Kurdish militia in Syria’s northwestern Kurdish enclave of Afrin on Saturday, a monitoring group said. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democractic Forces alliance said the Turkish raids targeted pro-regime positions, but gave no death toll.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the strikes on the area of Kafr Janna were the third such raid on loyalist fighters in the enclave bordering Turkey in less than 48 hours. They came after Turkish raids on other parts of the enclave killed 14 pro-regime fighters on Thursday and four more on Friday, the monitor said. Turkish-led Syrian opposition fighters have advanced steadily since January 20 when they launched an assault on Afrin, controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

The Syrian government deployed fighters to the enclave a month later after the Kurds appealed for help. The Observatory says Turkish-led forces control more than 20 percent of the enclave after seizing the area of Rajo in the northwest of Afrin on Saturday. They also seized a strategic mountain in the northeast of the enclave, a military official from the Turkish-led operation said. Turkish troops and Turkey-backed opposition fighters have been on the offensive in Afrin since Jan 20 against Syrian Kurdish fighters. Ankara has also warned Damascus not to send fighters to the area, saying it would target them. Turkey considers Syrian Kurdish fighters to be “terrorists” linked to a Kurdish insurgency within its own borders. The pro-government Syrian force began deploying in Afrin on Feb 20, despite Turkey’s threats. Syrian state media said the aim is to defend Afrin.

The airstrikes mark a major escalation between Turkey, the main backer of Syrian opposition fighters trying to remove President Bashar Assad from power, and Syria’s pro-government forces, backed by Iran. The main Kurdish militia in Syria, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, confirmed the attack, saying the airstrikes killed and wounded several fighters without giving further details. Turkey’s military said Turkish-made ATAK helicopters struck a region in western Afrin, killing nine “terrorists.” It did not provide further details and it was not clear if the airstrikes were in retaliation for the deaths of eight Turkish soldiers who were reported killed there on Thursday.

Turkey’s private Dogan news agency said meanwhile that Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters have entered the town of Rajo, in Afrin, touching off “violent clashes.” Dogan, or DHA, released a video from Rajo showing Turkishbacked Syrian opposition fighters firing into the distance as well as the fighters milling about. Near the Syrian capital, Damascus, a five-hour daily truce was in effect on Friday, for the fourth day this week, but no civilians left the city’s rebel-held suburbs known as eastern Ghouta.

State-run al-Ikhbariya TV said rebels shelled a crossing point to Ghouta in order to prevent people from leaving. The Russia-ordered pause came after a UN Security Council resolution calling for a nationwide 30-day cease-fire failed to take hold. While the relentless bombing has somewhat subsided in eastern Ghouta, home to around 400,000 civilians, the Syrian government’s push to squeeze the insurgents out of the region continued. The Observatory and the opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets, reported airstrikes earlier on Friday on the suburbs of Zamalka, Douma and Hazzeh. The Syrian Civil Defense said one person was killed. French President Emmanuel Macron and President Donald Trump discussed the situation in Syria over the phone and for the immediate implementation of the 30-day cease-fire, the French president’s office said.

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