Hundreds of families flee Syrian town of Afrin under Turkish military attack

Hundreds of families fled the Syrian town of Afrin for nearby villages held by pro-Syrian government forces overnight as Turkish forces shelled the town, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

According to a report by Reuters, Turkish military forces and allied radical Free Syrian Army (FSA) militias are targeting Afrin in an offensive against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which the Turkish government considers a terrorist organization and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northwestern Syria.

The Observatory said families left the town in buses and cars for Nubl and al-Zahra, Shi’ite Muslim villages that are loyal to the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian government has sided with the YPG against Turkey in Afrin.

United Nations Human Rights Spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani also stated on Friday that hundreds of thousands of civilians are at risk in Afrin, including those recently displaced from other areas captured by Turkish-led forces. Shamdasani made a statement on reports of civilian deaths and injuries in Afrin due to airstrikes, ground-based strikes and civilians being prevented from leaving Afrin by Kurdish forces.

Autocratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Friday that three-fourths of Afrin has been captured. Speaking at a local congress of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in eastern Erzurum province, Erdoğan said Turkey has resolved the Afrin issue to a great extent. “As of now, we have established control in three-fourths of the Afrin region,” he said.

Erdoğan also spoke about the presence of militants on the eastern side of the Euphrates River in Syria. “If the US really wants to cooperate with us against terror, it must start by removing terrorists from east of the Euphrates. We will definitely remove those terrorists from the areas they have invaded,” Erdoğan said.

Meanwhile, the Turkish army dropped leaflets in the Afrin region on Friday, calling on Kurdish militants to surrender and “trust the justice” of Turkey, the military said, after a night of heavy shelling against the region’s biggest town.

“The Turkish Armed Forces are in Afrin to bring peace, calm and safety,” the leaflets said in Arabic and Kurdish, according to the military. “Trust the hand we extend to you. Trust the justice of Turkey! Trust the Turkish Armed Forces! Come and surrender! A future filled with calm and peace awaits you in Afrin.”

Turkish military forces shelled Afrin heavily overnight and killed at least 18 people, said Brusk Hasakeh, a YPG spokesman. Hasakeh has also said the Turkish forces and their Syrian militia allies were trying to storm Afrin from the north. “They are shelling in order to storm [Afrin],” Hasakeh said by phone. He said the YPG and its all-female affiliate, the YPJ, were waging battles with the attacking forces.

The pro-Kurdish Fırat news agency (ANF), however, reported on Friday that Turkish military bombardments on Afrin city center claimed the lives of 21 civilians and left dozens wounded. More than 260 civilians have been killed during the 56 days of the Turkish military campaign against Afrin.

Turkey’s armed forces have been attempting to besiege the town of Afrin in recent days, and a spokesman for President Erdoğan said on Thursday that the town would be cleared of fighters “very soon.”

The Turkish General Staff said in a statement on Friday morning that a total of 3,530 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 that the militants in question either surrendered or were killed or captured.

Meanwhile, it was reported that the European Afrin Solidarity Platform has set up an information tent in front of the European Parliament in Brussels to provide detailed information on the alleged war crimes of the Turkish government in Afrin and the humanitarian crisis caused by the Turkish military attack on the enclave. The tent will reportedly be open every day between 11:00 and 15:00 March 19-23.

Moreover, US State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said the US has not agreed with Turkey to oust Kurdish fighters from Syria’s Manbij, contradicting a statement from the Turkish government.

“It is not our understanding,” Nauert told reporters in Washington on Thursday in response to a question about the deal. “We have a lot of conversations that we’re having with the Turkish government at this point. … We’re still working to reach an agreement, and we’re not done talking with them.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, a number of whose unilateral statements have been contradicted by his counterparts, said on Tuesday that an agreement with Washington had been reached and that US and Turkish officials were working on a timetable to implement the plans.

The United States has stationed hundreds of troops in Manbij, where thousands of fighters of the Kurdish YPG are also based. Turkey wants Washington to ensure that the militants, who it labels as terrorists, return to positions east of the Euphrates River and has threatened to confront them in Manbij if the US fails to implement its demands.

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