Turkish forces target strategic hill near Syria’s Afrin
KILIS, Turkey (AP) — Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters captured a strategic hill in northwestern Syria on Sunday as their offensive to root out Kurdish fighters entered a second week.
Associated Press reporters in the Turkish border town of Kilis heard constant shelling and clashes as Turkish aircraft flew overhead and plumes of smoke rose in the distance.
The Turkey-backed forces have been trying to capture the hill, which separates the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin from the Turkey-controlled town of Azaz, since the start of their offensive on Jan. 20, but have been met with stiff resistance.
The Kurdish militia known as the People’s Defense Units, or YPG, said Turkey sent reinforcements to the area following intense airstrikes on Sunday. It disputed the claim that the Turkish troops and allied fighters were in full control of the hill, saying its forces had redeployed and will fight to reclaim the strategic area.
The Turkish military said in a statement that its soldiers and allied Syrian opposition fighters captured Bursayah hill assisted by airstrikes, attack helicopters, armed drones and howitzers. Rami Abdurrahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, confirmed the Turkish troops seized control of the strategic hill, which overlooks northeastern Afrin, after intense battles.
Abdurrahman said the airstrikes also targeted the area around Afrin’s main dam for the second time since the offensive began. There were no immediate reports of damage to the 17 April Dam, which provides water and electricity to the Kurdish enclave, home to hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom have fled from other parts of Syria.
The Observatory said at least 51 civilians, including 17 children, were killed in the offensive on Sunday, including eight people from the same family. It said 66 YPG fighters and 69 Turkey-backed Syrian fighters were also killed. Turkey says five of its soldiers and 16 allied fighters were killed in the fighting. The YPG said one of its female fighters blew herself up, destroying a Turkish tank in southwestern Afrin.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech Sunday that there were reports that the YPG was holding Turkish soldiers captive, adding that Turkey was taking steps to try to bring them back. Erdogan’s statement did not make clear the number of soldiers who were missing or whether they were alive.
Reports also emerged that an ancient temple in Afrin was badly damaged in Turkish airstrikes that struck its courtyard late Friday, according to the Observatory, the YPG and the Syrian government. In a statement published on the Syrian state news agency SANA, the government antiquities department condemned the destruction of the temple.
Images showed stones piled up in the open courtyard of the temple of Ain Dara, an Iron Age Syro-Hittite temple that dates back to sometime between the 10th and 8th centuries B.C. The temple, which features sculptures of lions and sphinxes and “the giant footsteps of the gods,” was noted for its structural similarities to Solomon’s temple as described in the Bible.
In the images taken of the destruction, none of the statutes were still intact, with rubble and metal scraps strewn across the temple’s floor.
SANA said a mosque was also damaged in airstrikes in southwestern Afrin.
A Turkish military official said the airstrikes did not target religious or cultural sites, adding that the images were insufficient to determine the cause of the damage. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military rules. The extent of the damage to the temple could not be independently assessed but the Observatory said it was badly damaged.
In a speech to party members in northern Turkey, Erdogan again vowed to expand the military offensive eastward, toward the Syrian town of Manbij, which is held by U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters. The crowd responded by chanting: “Hit, hit! Let it reverberate and let (U.S. President Donald) Trump hear.”
Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist group because of its links to Kurdish insurgents fighting in Turkey. The YPG also forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed militia that drove the Islamic State group from much of northern and eastern Syria.
The United States has expressed concerns about the Turkish campaign, fearing it will distract from efforts to defeat IS and ensure the extremists do not regroup.
On Sunday, dozens of people gathered near the Kilis border crossing, chanting “God is great” and waving Turkish flags. Public displays of support for the offensive have been widespread in Turkey, while critics have been detained.
Separately, a cease-fire deal to halt fighting in the besieged rebel-held Damascus suburb of Ghouta failed to take hold for a second day. The deal, reached in Vienna between the Syrian opposition and Russia, was punctured by continued fighting and intense shelling in the suburb where 400,000 residents live.
Meanwhile, the Observatory said the rebels began an offensive on a government base in Harasta, following intense government shelling. The rebel offensive was met with a barrage of government airstrikes and rockets.
In northwestern Idlib, the Observatory and the first responders known as the White Helmets reported at least 12 civilians were killed in airstrikes in the towns of Saraqeb and Maaret al-Numan.
The violence comes a day before a Russia-backed conference in Sochi that Moscow hopes will steer the Syrian government and opposition toward a peace process. The two-day conference, which is expected to be attended by some 1,600 representatives of the Syrian government and opposition, is boycotted by the main Syria opposition negotiating body. The opposition says the process undermines U.N-led talks, which have so far failed to kick-start a political process.
Associated Press writers Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.