Turkey bombs Kurdish militia in Syria

Pro-Ankara rebels also begin moving into the Afrin area to oust the Kurdish fighters

ISTANBUL • Turkish war planes yesterday launched air strikes on positions of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia in Syria, the Turkish prime minister said, as Ankara launched a new operation against the group.

Units of pro-Ankara rebels known by Turkey as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) also began moving into the Afrin area of Syria which is controlled by the YPG, the state-run Anadolu news agency said.

"Our armed forces have started an air campaign in order to destroy elements" of the YPG, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said in a televised speech.

An AFP correspondent on the Turkish side of the border saw two war planes launch air strikes inside Syrian territory, sending huge white plumes of smoke up into the early evening sky.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier yesterday that Turkey had "de-facto" launched a new operation on the ground to oust Kurdish militia from a northern Syrian enclave, defying US warnings that the action risked destabilising the area.

A Turkish foreign ministry official said in the wake of the announcement of the air strikes that Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu held talks with United States counterpart Rex Tillerson, at Washington's request.

Turkey has in recent days sent dozens of military vehicles to the border area and readied pro-Ankara Syria rebels amid repeated threats from top officials the operation on the town of Afrin was imminent.

The Turkish army has over the last two days shelled camps and hideouts used by the YPG in response to fire from the militia group, which Turkey deems to be a terror organisation.

"The Afrin operation has de-facto been started on the ground," Mr Erdogan said in a televised speech in the city of Kutahya, without elaborating.

"This will be followed by Manbij," he added, referring to another Kurdish-controlled Syrian town to the east.

Turkey accuses the YPG of being the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has waged a rebellion in the Turkish south-east for more than three decades and is regarded as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies.

But the YPG has been the key ally of Turkey's fellow Nato member the US in the fight against militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), playing a key role in pushing the extremists out of their Syrian strongholds.

Turkey from August 2016 to March last year pushed into Syria in its more than half-year Euphrates Shield operation in an area to the east of Afrin against both YPG and ISIS.

Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad warned on Thursday that the Syrian air force could destroy any Turkish warplanes used in the new offensive.

Analysts say that crucial for any major ground operation will be approval from Moscow which has a military presence in the area and a cordial relationship with the YPG. The Russian foreign ministry yesterday voiced its concern over Turkey's military engagement in Afrin and called for restraint.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 21, 2018, with the headline 'Turkey bombs Kurdish militia in Syria'. Print Edition | Subscribe