Fear grows among civilians as Turkish troops, FSA approach to within 2 miles of Afrin

Concerns are rising over the safety of civilians in Afrin’s main city as Turkish forces and Free Syrian Army (FSA) militia close in, United Arab Emirates paper The National reported.

On Saturday Turkish forces approached to within two miles of the city, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The city’s population has increased since Turkey’s military operation in Afrin began on Jan. 20, as thousands of civilians fleeing fighting in outlying areas have sought shelter there. The Turkish offensive, codenamed “Operation Olive Branch,” made slow progress initially but has accelerated since the capture of Jandairis, a town a dozen miles southwest of Afrin city, on March 8.

Fears for the fate of civilians trapped by the fighting have grown since autocratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Turkish forces and their FSA allies intend to take control of the city, raising the prospect of urban fighting in a densely populated area.

Abdel Rahman voiced “major concerns” for the civilians trapped in Afrin city, whose only route out leads to government-controlled areas of Syria’s northern province of Aleppo. More than 200 civilians have died so far in Operation Olive Branch, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Turkish government disputes the figures.

On Sunday the Afrin Autonomous Administration also issued a call the UN Security Council to prevent a possible massacre of civilians in Afrin. Afrin Canton’s Executive Council Co-chair Osman Şex İsa called on the UNSC to take action in order to stop the massacre of civilians in Afrin at a press conference held amid reconnaissance activities by Turkish aircraft.

“For the past 51 days, the Turkish state is carrying out attacks against the civilian population in Afrin from air and ground. Hundreds of civilians including children and women have been massacred as a result of these attacks,” İsa said, adding, “In addition to the armed attacks, the Turkish army is also targeting drinking water supplies, schools and houses directly. Hundreds of people have been displaced by these attacks so far.”

“With these fascist attacks, the Turkish state seeks to displace the local people from their lands where they have been living for thousands of years,” İsa stated. “Silence of the public opinion is the only reason for the current situation in Afrin. On this basis, we as the Autonomous Administration of Afrin Canton warn the UNSC and the international community, and urge them to break their silence on these attacks. We call upon the UNSC, and related organizations of law to make the attacks on Afrin Canton stop in response to the barbarity and atrocity of Erdoğan.”

The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and FSA had captured five more villages in Syria’s northwestern Afrin region as of Sunday. According to a report by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency, Turkish troops and the FSA captured the villages of Qere tepe and Qastel Kisk in Sharran, northeast of the town center of Afrin, as well as the villages of Khalidiah and Jalbul east of Afrin, and the villages of Ka’n Kurk in the Jandaris district.

Since the beginning of the operation, Turkish forces and jihadist FSA militias have captured 176 locations, including five town centers, 140 villages and 31 strategic areas.

The Turkish General Staff said in a statement on Sunday morning that a total of 3,291 militants have been “neutralized” since the start of Operation Olive Branch in Syria’s northwestern Afrin region. Turkish authorities often use the word “neutralized” in their statements to imply the terrorists in question either surrendered or were killed or captured.

President Erdoğan has also stated on Sunday that Turkish and FSA forces have so far liberated 950 square kilometers (590 square miles) during the military campaign. “To date 950 square kilometers have been taken under our control,” Erdoğan told the sixth provincial congress of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the Black Sea province of Bolu.

Erdoğan claimed that the ongoing operation is not to “occupy” the region but to liberate it from People’s Protection Units (YPG)/Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and alleged Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants, and then hand it over to the people living there. “In the Afrin region, the owners of the land have started to come back,” he said.

Meanwhile, demonstrations are being reported in European cities and elsewhere as concerns grow over the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria’s Afrin region. Social media carried reports and footage of groups of people marching in European cities that have substantial Kurdish populations, such as London, Stuttgart, Hamburg, Brussels and Helsinki.

Elsewhere there were demonstrations that continued Sunday in the Iraqi Kurdish cities of Sulaymaniya and Arbil. Protests also took place in Qamishlo in northern Syria.

The protests come as the Turkish army is threatening to attack Afrin’s largest city. The “humanitarian situation is getting catastrophic in the Afrin area as a result of increased shelling and escalation of the ground attack,” the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated on Friday.

Former Democratic Union Party (PYD) leader and TEV-DEM foreign relations official Saleh Muslim said on Sunday that “nobody has the right to tell the people of Afrin to leave. That land belongs to the people of Afrin. The children there are protecting their land. Why should they abandon it?”

Speaking at a meeting in The Hague, Muslim claimed that “the Turkish state is massacring people in Afrin with the weapons of Europe. This is unacceptable.”

Stating that “the Turkish state, which attacked Kobanê, Shengal and Kirkuk through its gangs, is attacking Afrin today. They want to finalize the massacres in those places in Afrin now,” Muslim added: “To us, there is no difference between Afrin and other regions of Kurdistan. Afrin is a continuation of the massacres in Sur, Cizre, Nusaybin and Shengal. The Turkish state seeks to finalize its massacres against Armenians, Syriacs and Kurds in the 20th century. This is not a personal issue for the Kurds. This is a matter of honor and dignity to us.”

On Jan. 20, the Turkish military launched an operation to capture Afrin from the Kurdish YPG militia. According to the Turkish General Staff, the operation aims to establish security and stability along Turkey’s borders and the region as well as “to protect Syrians from the oppression and cruelty of terrorists.”

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