55 civilians die as Turkey intensifies Syria campaign

AFRIN, Syria: Relatives of a Kurdish herder mourn outside the hospital in Afrin, after he was killed in a Turkish airstrike on their village near the Kurdish enclave. —AFP

AFRIN: Clashes and air strikes again hit Syria’s border region of Afrin yesterday, with new civilian casualties reported as Turkey pursued an offensive against Kurdish forces. The operation, launched on January 20, sees Turkey providing air and ground support to Syrian opposition fighters in an offensive against Kurdish militia in northwestern Syria. Ankara, which considers the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria a “terror” group, has vowed to continue and possibly expand the operation despite international concern and strained relations with Washington.

In reaction to the offensive, the Kurds have said they will not attend peace talks aimed at resolving Syria’s long civil war which will be held today in the Russian city of Sochi. Turkish air strikes and artillery fire were continuing yesterday in northern and western parts of a Afrin, a predominantly Kurdish region of Syria on the border with Turkey, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

“Fighting has intensified on several fronts,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Observatory, which uses a network of long-established sources to monitor Syria’s war. He said pro-Turkish forces had captured eight areas near the border since the start of the operation. The Turkish military said Sunday it had seized control of Mount Barsaya near the town of Afrin, a strategically important high point. At least 14 people, including five children, died Sunday in Turkish air strikes on the region, the Observatory said.

Clouds of smoke
It says 55 civilians have been killed since the start of the offensive. Turkey strongly rejects such claims, saying it is doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties in the operation. At the main hospital in Afrin, a pick-up truck pulled up on Sunday carrying wounded civilians, including children in blood-stained clothes, who were rushed inside for treatment. An ambulance arrived bearing the bodies of a man and a small child, its skull crushed. Clouds of black smoke were seen rising from the hills around Afrin, but fighting has not yet reached the city. Shops were open and many residents were going about their business as normal, walking outside and gathering in public squares. Turkey says seven of its soldiers have died since operation “Olive Branch” was launched, while around 40 others have been injured.

At least 76 pro-Turkish rebels have been killed, as well as 78 Kurdish fighters, according to the Observatory. The Turkish army said in a statement yesterday that “597 terrorists have been neutralized” since the start of the operation. Turkish relations with the United States have soured over Ankara’s stance on the YPG-which Ankara says is a “terrorist” offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK, which has waged a war against the Turkish state for three decades, is proscribed as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies. The YPG has received support from the United States, with its fighters spearheading the battle against the Islamic State group across swathes of Syria.

Peace talks in Russia
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to expand the offensive against the YPG to Manbij, east of Afrin. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu lashed out at US support for the militia in an opinion piece published Sunday in the New York Times. “A NATO ally arming a terrorist organization that is attacking another NATO ally is a fundamental breach of everything that NATO stands for,” he wrote. Turkey’s interior ministry said yesterday that authorities had detained 311 people suspected of disseminating “terror propaganda” in connection with the Syria offensive.

Delegates were meanwhile arriving yesterday for the first Syria peace congress in Russia, but expectations were tempered after the country’s main opposition group, like the Kurds, refused to participate. Regime-backer Moscow has invited hundreds of people to Tuesday’s talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, which are being co-sponsored by Turkey and Iran, another supporter of President Bashar Al-Assad. After another round of failed peace talks in Vienna last week, the main opposition Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC), said it would not attend the Sochi congress.

The SNC accused Assad’s regime and its Russian backers of continuing to rely on military might-and showing no willingness to enter into honest negotiations-as the war, in which more than 340,000 people have died, approaches its seventh year. Assad’s forces have managed to regain control of much of the territory lost in the inital years of the war and in recent months have been concentrating efforts on the northwestern province of Idlib. Large parts of the province are controlled by a group dominated by Al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate. The Observatory said yesterday that regime air strikes had killed 33 civilians in the past 24 hours in Idlib.- AFP