Turkish troops enter Afrin in northern Syria as offensive against Kurds continues

Turkish military is aiming to carve out a 30km 'safe zone' within Syria to protect their border and push out the region's Kurdish population

Turkish artillery shells YPG positions on the Turkish-Syrian border
Turkish artillery shells YPG positions on the Turkish-Syrian border

Turkish troops have reportedly entered the Kurdish-held enclave in northern Syria as part of the second day of their offensive alongside Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters.

The state run Anadolu Agency said troops pushed 5km (three miles) into Afrin on Sunday a day after Turkish jets attacked the US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters.

The Turkish military has said its offensive, which they call “Operation Olive Branch”, aims to rid the region of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and they are aiming to create a 30km “safe zone” within Syria to protect their border.

Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel factions had captured a Kurdish village with no resistance and were clearing landmines, a Turkish official said.

The FSA said they have 25,000 rebels backing the Turkish operation.

The Turkish state has had an ongoing battle with Kurdish separatist rebels, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, within its own borders and claims they are closely affiliated with the YPG.

The YPG, which forms the backbone of the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF), control Afrin in the northwestern Aleppo province and helped recapture the area from Isis in 2016.

In a statement, the Syrian opposition fighters battling alongside the Turkish troops said the combined force seized Shankal, a village on the northwestern edge of Afrin district.

SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali denied that Turkish troops had entered Afrin, saying Kurdish forces had been repelling attacks since Saturday. Mr Bali said the SDF had sent reinforcements to Afrin.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the Kurdish militia and Turkish forces have clashed on the northern and western edges of Afrin. The Observatory said the Turkey-backed forces have entered Shankal and are clashing with the Kurds.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to expand the offensive to Manbij on Saturday.

He also threatened to deploy the Turkish security forces within the country if the pro-Kurdish opposition protests against the operation.

He said: ”Our jets took off and started bombing. And now the ground operation is underway. Now we see how the YPG ... are fleeing in Afrin.

“We will chase them. God willing, we will complete this operation very quickly.”

An advance on Manbij by NATO member Turkey would pit two close US allies against one another, adding another front to the already complex Syrian civil war.

Turkish troops first crossed the border in Syria in 2016 when the Kurds seized control of Manbij from Isis to stop them expanding westwards and linking up to Afrin.

Earlier on Sunday, four rockets fired from Syria hit the Turkish border town of Kilis, prompting Turkish artillery to return fire, Governor Mehmet Tekinarslan said. The rockets hit two houses and a workplace, and wounded one person.

Another rocket fired across the border from Syria hit the Turkish border town of Reyhanli on Sunday, killing a Syrian national and wounding 32 people, broadcaster NTV reported the town’s mayor as saying. CNN Turk said three rockets in total had been fired across the border towards Reyhanli.

During a press conference, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters there were between 8,000 and 10,000 “terrorists” in Afrin.

Members of the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), the democratic Kurdish political party, protesting against Operation Olive Branch in Istanbul on 21 January

Meanwhile Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters on Sunday that anyone who opposed the action in Afrin would be deemed as siding with terrorists and would be treated accordingly.

Despite the warning, members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the democratic Kurdish political party, gathered at a rally to protest against Operation Olive Branch in Istanbul.

On Friday the Syrian government threatened to shoot down Turkish fighter jets if they fly into its airspace.

Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mekdad was quoted by the Syrian state news agency Sana as saying: “We warn that the Syrian Air Force is ready to destroy Turkish air targets in the skies of Syria.

“If they [Turkey] start fighting in the region of Afrin it will be seen as an aggression by the Turkish army against the sovereignty of Syria.”

Additional reporting by agencies

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