Turkey in deadly Kurdish militia clashes as US sounds alarm

A convoy of Turkish Army armoured personnel carriers led by a tank are driven toward the border with Syria, in the outskirts of Hassa, Turkey, Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. (AP)
Updated 23 January 2018
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Turkey in deadly Kurdish militia clashes as US sounds alarm

HASSA,Turkey: The Turkish army on Tuesday clashed with Kurdish militia in Syria in an operation that has already left two of its soldiers dead, as the United States voiced alarm the offensive could endanger attempts to end the Syrian civil war.
Speaking at the funeral of the first of two Turkish soldiers to be killed so far in the four day cross-border campaign, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed that Ankara would emerge victorious.
Turkey on Saturday launched operation "Olive Branch" aimed at rooting out the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia, which Ankara sees as a terror group, from its Afrin enclave in northern Syria.
The campaign has caused ripples of concern among Turkey's NATO allies, especially the United States which is still working closely with the YPG to defeat Daesh militants in Syria.
In his strongest comments yet on the offensive, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called for Turkey to show "restraint" and warned it could harm the fight against the rebel group.
He warned the offensive "disrupts what was a relatively stable area in Syria and distracts from the international effort to defeat" Daesh, on a visit to Indonesia.
Turkish artillery on Tuesday pounded targets of the YPG inside Syria, the state-run Anadolu news agency said.
Meanwhile, Turkish drones were also carrying out attacks, state television said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said fighting was "very violent" northeast, northwest and southwest of Afrin.
The Observatory said the offensive took control of two villages so far.
As well as the artillery and air strikes, Turkish ground troops and Ankara-backed Syrian rebels have punched over the border several kilometres (miles) into Syrian territory, taking several villages, according to state media.
After intense exchanges, Turkey's forces took control of the hill of Barsaya, a key strategic point in the Afrin region.
The Observatory said 43 Ankara-backed rebels and 38 Kurdish fighters had been killed in the fighting so far. It has also said 28 civilians have been killed on the Syrian side but this is vehemently rejected by Turkey which says it is only targeting militants.
Sergeant Musa Ozalkan, 30, the first Turkish military fatality of the operation, was laid to rest with full honours in a ceremony in Ankara attended by the Turkish leadership.
"We will win and reach victory in this operation together with our people, together with Free Syrian Army," Erdogan assured mourners, referring to the Ankara-backed rebels.
"We have full confidence," he added.
A second Turkish soldier was killed in Syria Tuesday in clashes with the YPG, the military said in a statement. He was named as First Lieutenant Oguz Kaan Usta.
The campaign -- which Erdogan has made clear has no fixed timetable -- is fraught with risks for Turkey.
Two civilians have been killed inside Turkey in border towns in the last two days by rocket fire from Syria blamed on the YPG.
"This operation will continue until the last terrorist is eliminated," Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said.
The leaders of the YPG-controlled enclave meanwhile announced a "general mobilisation", calling up civilians to defend Afrin against Turkish attack.
The offensive against the YPG is also fraught with diplomatic sensitivities with Western capitals particularly concerned that it will take the focus away from eliminating Daesh.
France and the European Union have made similar comments to those made by Mattis.
But Ankara has expressed impatience with such sentiments, arguing that the YPG is the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) which has waged a bloody three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state.
Critical is the opinion of Russia, which has a military presence in the area and a cordial relationship with the YPG but is also working with Turkey to bring an end to the seven-year Syrian civil war.
Erdogan said Monday that the offensive had been agreed with Russia but this has not been confirmed by Moscow.
However many analysts argue that Turkey would never have gone ahead with the offensive without the Kremlin's blessing.
Turkey's previous incursion into Syria was the Euphrates Shield campaign in August 2016-March 2017, targeting both the YPG and Daesh in an area east of Afrin.
The Turkish security forces have meanwhile imposed a clampdown against anyone suspected of disseminating "terror propaganda" against the operation on social media.
Ninety-one people were detained in 13 provinces in Turkey, state media reported on Tuesday, after 24 people had been detained in other cities on Monday.


In Mosul, young students help bring city back to life

Raghad Hammadi, who is a member of a group of students campaigning to help rebuild the Central Library of Mosul University, speaks with Reuters, in Mosul, Iraq on May 14, 2018. (REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily)
Updated 28 May 2018
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In Mosul, young students help bring city back to life

  • A group of students who launched a campaign to help rebuild the Central Library of Mosul University found buried under layers of ash some 30,000 books almost intact.
  • Among the books salvaged were some handwritten by Mosul scholars. They included editions written in Moslawi, the distinct dialect of the region once known as a center for scholarly Islam and the pride of many for its ancient mosques, churches and Old City

MOSUL, Iraq: A group of Iraqi university students have found a cause in the ruins of Mosul.

They are salvaging what is left of its rich heritage, clearing rubble and distributing aid in a city crying out for help after the war against Daesh.

The project began when Raghad Hammoudi and a group of students decided to launch a campaign to help rebuild the Central Library of Mosul University, burned and bombed in the war. Its vast contents had been all but lost.

But they found buried under layers of ash some 30,000 books almost intact. Over 40 hot days, with the war still raging on the other side, the students moved the books one by one using holes made by rockets to carry them to safety.

“An entire city with a glorious past and ancient history lost its heritage and culture: The tomb of the Prophet Jonah, the minaret of Al-Hadba which is older than Iraq itself. It is great that we were able to save a part of this heritage,” said Hammoudi, 25, a nursing student. 

Both the leaning minaret of Al-Hadba , part of the 12th century Grand Al-Nuri Mosque, where in 2014 Daesh’s Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared a caliphate, and the ancient tomb of what is believed to be the Prophet Jonah were destroyed in the military campaign to retake the city.

Hammoudi says among the books salvaged were some handwritten by Mosul scholars. They included editions written in Moslawi, the distinct dialect of the region once known as a center for scholarly Islam and the pride of many for its ancient mosques, churches and Old City architecture.

 

Revolution within

Elsewhere, volunteers cleared rubble and garbage, opened roads, drilled water wells and distributed aid.

“The situation in Mosul is so much better now and this is because of the revolution that happened within Mosul, within its young people,” she said.

After living under Daesh’s strict rule and then the war to retake the city, young women feel as though they have been liberated.

The team that set out to rescue the books was mixed, a rarity in Mosul’s society, where mingling between sexes outside the family or university was limited even before Daesh.

“An unbelievable barrier has been broken, it might be a trivial thing for the rest of the world but for Mosul it is huge,” she said.

Months after Iraq announced full control of the city, life is back in many parts. But much of the Old City, where the last and the bloodiest battles were waged, is still in complete ruin.

Diyaa Al-Taher, a resident who is helping rehabilitate homes, says most people, despite being impoverished, have returned to neighborhoods where the rubble has been cleared. However, there are entire areas that are completely deserted. Corpses fester under debris.

“Poverty can do more harm than Daesh. If the city remains like this and the poor can’t find anything to eat, they will do anything,” said Taher, 30.

Taher says his target is to rehabilitate 1,000 homes and has so far finished rehabilitating 75, relying solely on donations from locals.

Taher is regularly stopped by locals asking for help. He points to a collapsed home where an entire family was killed.

“Their belongings were taken to be sold for charity,” he said, skipping over the stream of sewage that split the road.

 

Miracle escape

Marwa Al-Juburi,25, a divorcee, was one of the first to volunteer as soon as she and her family escaped the fighting.

“It was a miracle that we even made it. From then on I refused to accept to stay at home anymore. I refused to be silenced and I haven’t since,” she said.

She says she had to overcome stigma both as a woman and a divorcee to carry out the work.

She runs activities for children and helps coordinate access to medical care and equipment for families. Her team organized the opening of a park previously used as a military training ground for the fighters who ruled the city for three years.

Al Juburi, who is still haunted by images of the night of their escape, says even if Mosul is rebuilt, people need help to get over the mental toll.

“In the end, the city will be rebuilt, even if it takes 1,000 years. But if the mind is destroyed, then the city will be lost with no hope of resurrection.”