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Syria: ‘Unlawful’ civilian deaths in Afrin condemned as Assad forces raise stakes in Kurdish-Turkey conflict

More than 100 civilians have died in month-old-offensive, Human Rights Watch says, as new presence of Syrian government allied forces complicates battle  

Friday 23 February 2018 19:00 GMT
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Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters brandish their weapons near the city of Afrin
Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters brandish their weapons near the city of Afrin (Reuters)

​Human Rights Watch (HRW) has condemned Turkey’s offensive on a Kurdish held area of northern Syria as causing unnecessary civilian casualties, as some counts put the toll as high as 120.

The statement on Friday cited three attacks in the contested canton of Afrin in late January that killed a total of 26 civilians, including 17 children.

The Turkish military had failed to take necessary precautions before carrying out the strikes and must conduct a thorough public investigation, the rights group said.

Explosions as Turkey confirms airstrikes on Afrin, Syria

“It appears that vulnerable civilians are facing displacement and death because of the way Turkey’s latest offensive is being conducted,” said Lama Fakih, the organisation’s deputy Middle East director.

“Turkey is obligated to take every feasible precaution to avoid harming or killing civilians, and to help them if they want to flee the violence.”

On Friday, Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said the army would be extending Operation Olive Branch, at the same time making every effort to avoid harming any civilians.

The Defence Minister, Nurettin Canikli, has previously dismissed reports of harmed civilians as false.

The air and ground offensive utilising Free Syrian Army fighters began on 20 January, opening a new front in Syria’s bloody seven-year-old conflict.

The attack is designed to clear out Kurdish YPG fighters – which Ankara sees as inextricably linked to the Turkey-based separatist PKK – from the border region.

It is widely believed to have been sparked by Turkish anger at renewed US support for the YPG and Arab-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which its Nato ally has backed as the most effective ground force against Isis.

The HRW statement comes a few days after paramilitary forces loyal to the government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad arrived in the area from Aleppo to support the Kurdish troops.

The two sides have at times been in direct conflict and at others have formed realpolitik alliances during Syria’s war.

In protests against the Turkish offensive across Kurdish areas of Syria on Thursday, demonstrators waved posters of Kurdish political leader Abdullah Ocalan and Mr Assad side by side.

The alliance has worried observers of the war, who fear it could trigger a complicated escalation in fighting.

Also on Friday, Turkey said it had shelled a YPG weapons convoy in Afrin, which Kurdish officials immediately claimed was a 40-strong chain of civilian vehicles also carrying food and medicine to areas affected by fighting.

The attack killed at least one person and injured 10, YPG spokesperson Birusk Hasaka said.

Despite international calls to halt the offensive, President Erdogan has remained bullish, repeatedly threatening that his forces could extend their offensive as far east as Manbij – which could bring them into direct conflict with the US-backed SDF coalition and stationed US troops.

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