Turkey launches incursion against Syrian Kurdish stronghold

Turkish-backed fighters from the Free Syrian Army firing at Kurdish YPG positions in the village of Um al-Hosh, near Afrin, on Jan 20 , 2018. PHOTO: AFP

ISTANBUL (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Turkey launched a ground offensive against Kurdish separatist fighters and Islamic State positions in northwest Syria on Sunday after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ignored calls from the US to avoid attacking Afrin.

Turkish tanks crossed into the Syrian town of Azaz and were advancing toward the Kurdish stronghold of Afrin, the Hurriyet newspaper said.

The Turkish military has so far hit 153 Kurdish militant targets in its operation in northern Syria's Afrin region, the army said in a statement on Sunday. The targets were shelters, hideouts and arsenals used by the militants, the military said, adding that artillery fire continued from the ground.

The incursion came after Turkish F-16s and artillery units hit almost all targets in the operation against Kurdish YPG and Islamic State positions, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on television late Saturday.

The army said 72 warplanes took part using Syrian airspace. Turkish General Hulusi Akar said troops suffered some casualties in the operation, which also included Turkish-backed Syrian rebels from the Free Syrian Army.

Turkey is using self-defence under international law, and the "Olive Branch" operation is aimed at eliminating Kurdish PYD/YPG forces along with the Islamic State, the army said, accusing the YPG of using civilians as human shields.

Turkey has been outraged by plans to create a border security force using thousands of Kurdish fighters by the American-led coalition against the Islamic State, saying the Kurdish fighters have designs on Turkish territory.

While US officials have denied the formation of such a force, Mr Erdogan on Saturday accused America of trying to deceive Turkey. The offensive against the US proxy exacerbates strains that have tested Turkey's relations with Washington in recent years. Ankara has also been angered by the trial and conviction of a Turkish banker in the US on sanctions violation charges, and Washington's non-action on its request to extradite a Pennsylvania-based Turkish preacher whom Mr Erdogan accuses of instigating a failed 2016 coup.

"The operation in Afrin has effectively started and will be followed by Manbij," Mr Erdogan said, referring to another Kurdish stronghold on the western bank of the Euphrates River where some US troops are deployed alongside Kurdish forces.

The Turkish government said it has no intention to invade Syria and its troops would pull out after its targets were eliminated. Turkey has acted against the Syrian Kurdish forces before.

It began operating in northern Syria in 2016, its participation in an international effort to defeat Islamic State dovetailing with its campaign to block the convergence of Kurdish-run regions. An earlier deployment in Idlib, to the south of Afrin, denied the Kurds access to the Mediterranean Sea - a prized target for a planned Kurdish corridor running all the way to northern Iraq.

Turkey said it has taken necessary steps to avoid civilian casualties and the Turkish Red Crescent was setting up temporary housing facilities in Azaz.

Explosions Seen On Saturday, following loud explosions and huge flames, grey smoke billowing from targets could be seen from the Turkish border after airstrikes, footage on NTV Television shows.

The Syrian government urged the international community to condemn the attacks and take steps to end this "aggression," the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported, citing the country's foreign ministry.

The operation is likely to escalate tensions between the US and Turkey, which has accused Washington of overarming Kurdish forces and encouraging separatist aspirations. The Kurds were Washington's most trusted force in the US-led campaign to drive Islamic State extremists from Syria, but Turkey's government says they work hand-in-hand with PKK militants who have been battling for autonomy in Turkey's southeast since the 1980s.

The PKK is classified as a terrorist organisation by the US and European Union, as well as Turkey.

"Turkey is capable and determined to eliminate every kind of threat against it," Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Twitter soon after receiving a call from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Mr Tillerson was reported on Wednesday denying that a border security force will be established, saying the issue has been "misportrayed." Earlier this week, the US-led coalition against Islamic State confirmed that such a unit was to be set up.

Mr Cavusoglu said Turkey wasn't satisfied with the US explanation, while adding that it has no interest in colliding with the US over the operation. The offensive in Afrin would not directly entangle US troops, which are embedded with Kurdish fighters in the country's northeast.

Russia's defence ministry said the main trigger for the escalation was provocative steps taken by the US aimed at isolating areas with predominantly Kurdish populations. It said measures have been taken to ensure the safety of its servicemen in Afrin, and some troops have been relocated. Russia's foreign ministry said it's treating the developments with "concern."

"We call on the opposing sides to exercise mutual restraint," the foreign ministry said in a statement. "The main goal of the remaining Russian troops in Syria is to maintain the ceasefire in the de-escalation zones."

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