Turkish forces drive Kurds out of Afrin

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Civilians run for cover from explosions in the city of Afrin in northern Syria on Sunday, after Turkish forces and their opposition allies took control of the Kurdish-majority city. (AFP)
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A Turkish-backed Syrian fighter gestures as they gather in the city of Afrin in northern Syria on Sunday. (AFP)
Updated 19 March 2018
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Turkish forces drive Kurds out of Afrin

ISTANBUL/BEIRUT: Turkish forces and their Syrian opposition allies swept into the northwestern Syrian town of Afrin before dawn on Sunday, raising their flags in the town center and declaring full control after an eight-week campaign to drive out Kurdish YPG forces.
Turkish troops combed the streets for mines and improvised explosive devices, after Kurdish forces pulled back to Assad regime-controlled areas around the city of Aleppo and the Kurdish-held region east of the Euphrates River.
“Most of the terrorists have already fled with their tails between their legs. Our special forces and members of the Free Syrian Army are clearing the remains and the traps they left behind,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces said Turkish and Syrian opposition troops had torn down a statue in Afrin, in what it called a “blatant violation of Kurdish people’s culture and history.”
Kurdish militias elsewhere in the Afrin region would “strike the positions of the Turkish enemy and its mercenaries at every opportunity,” said Othman Sheikh Issa, co-chair of the Afrin executive council. “Our forces all over Afrin will become a constant nightmare for them.”
Turkey’s government spokesman Bekir Bozdag said the military campaign would continue to secure areas around Afrin and make sure food and medicine were available. “We have more to do. But the project of building a terrorism corridor and building a terrorist state is over,” he said.
Ankara launched an offensive against the town and surrounding areas on Jan. 20, slowly squeezing the militia and hundreds of thousands of civilians into the town center. At least 46 Turkish soldiers have been killed since then.

A Kurdish official, Hadia Yousef, told The Associated Press the YPG fighters have not fled the town, but have evacuated the remaining civilians because of “massacres.” She said clashes in the town were still underway.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Turkey-backed forces have taken control of half the town, with intense fighting still underway.
The Observatory says nearly 200,000 people have fled the Afrin region in recent days amid heavy airstrikes, entering Syrian government-held territory nearby. Syrian State TV on Sunday broadcast footage of a long line of vehicles and civilians on foot leaving Afrin. Erdogan has said the people of Afrin will return.
Turkey’s military meanwhile tweeted that its forces are now conducting combing operations to search for land mines and explosives.
The army posted a video on social media showing a soldier holding a Turkish flag and a man waving the Syrian opposition flag on the balcony of the district parliament building with a tank stationed on the street. The soldier called the capture a “gift” to the Turkish nation and to fallen soldiers on the anniversary of a famous World War I victory.
Footage by Turkey’s private Dogan news agency showed Syrian fighters shooting in the air in celebration.
Kurdish news websites showed images of Syrian fighters destroying a statue symbolizing the Kurdish new year celebrations that are being held this week. The statue was of Kawa, a mythological hero in Iran’s Zagros mountains who defeated a brutal ruler and lit fires to spread the news, ushering in spring.
The YPG has been a key US ally in the fight against the Daesh group, and seized large areas across northern and eastern Syria from the extremists with the help of coalition airstrikes.
But Erdogan has repeatedly said that NATO ally Turkey will not allow a “terror corridor” along its border.
Turkey also fears the establishment of a Kurdish self-ruled zone in Syria that could inspire its own Kurdish minority to press for greater autonomy. The Kurds are the largest stateless ethnic group in the Middle East, with some 30 million living in an area split between Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.
The Kurdish militia and the Observatory said Turkish jets struck Afrin’s main hospital on Friday, killing over a dozen people. The Turkish military denied the allegations.
The World Food Programme distributed food to 25,000 people in the nearby towns of Nubl and Zahra, including refugees from Afrin, from where more than 150,000 people fled in the past few days.
In Syria’s other major flashpoint, the former opposition enclave of Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus, Syrian President Bashar Assad visited troops on the front line in an area newly captured by his regime’s forces. Assad stood near a tank and was surrounded by soldiers, who cheered and pumped fists in the air. The main opposition group in the southern pocket of Eastern Ghouta said it was negotiating with a UN delegation about a cease-fire, aid and the evacuation of urgent medical cases.
“We are engaged in arranging serious negotiations to guarantee the safety and protection of civilians,” said Wael Alwan, the Istanbul-based spokesman for Failaq Al-Rahman. After a morning of calm, artillery fire and ground battles resumed across the enclave on Sunday afternoon, with heavy shelling of Douma, the main town.
(Additional input from AP)


War fears mount despite cease-fire between Gaza and Israel

Updated 47 min 54 sec ago
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War fears mount despite cease-fire between Gaza and Israel

  • Any further escalation will deepen humanitarian catastrophe in the Strip: UN chief
  • Before the truce, Israel unleashed an offensive it says destroyed more than 60 Hamas targets, including three battalion headquarters

GAZA CITY: After seven chaotic and violent hours, quiet returned to the Gaza Strip Friday night. Yet on Saturday, civilians in the Palestinian enclave and Israel remained fearful of the potential for a new war.
The fatal shooting by a Palestinian sniper of an Israeli soldier during protests along the border on Friday sparked a widespread wave of Israeli bombing, with three fighters from Hamas killed and dozens of targets struck.
After intensive indirect mediation by the UN and Egypt, a truce came into force at midnight, yet both populations remained on high alert of another all-out conflict between Israel and Hamas.
“War is coming. I know that the (Israeli) occupation is carrying out raids to pave the way with their home base,” Somaya Rabaya, 21, from Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza, said.
While the cease-fire deal included an end to rockets and mortars, it didn’t include a commitment by Hamas to stop what Israeli media have dubbed “terror kites,” a senior Hamas source said.
In a brief statement on Saturday, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the movement accepted the cease-fire brokered by Egyptian and UN officials and that calm had been restored. Later, the Israeli military announced a return to civilian routine along the volatile border.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “gravely concerned” about the escalation and called on both sides to step back from the prospect of another devastating conflict. “Any further escalation will endanger the lives of Palestinians and Israelis alike, deepen the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza and undermine current efforts to improve livelihoods,” he said.
On Saturday morning in Gaza, 17-year-old Wissam was with a number of other youths fitting kites with small bottles full of diesel, while sheltering behind a sandbank for fear of Israeli strikes. “This morning, they bombed a Hamas observation post near here. I was afraid they would hit us with a missile,” he said.
Israel says it has no interest is engaging in another war with Hamas, but says it will no longer tolerate the Gaza militant campaign of flying the incendiary devices into Israel.
On Friday, Israel unleashed an offensive it says destroyed more than 60 Hamas targets, including three battalion headquarters.
“The attack delivered a severe blow to the Hamas’ training array, command and control abilities, weaponry, aerial defense and logistic capabilities along with additional military infrastructure,” the Israeli military said in a statement, adding that the strikes “will intensify as necessary.”