Kurdish militants kill 3 Turkish soldiers near Iraq border as military operations go on in Syria’s Afrin

Three Turkish soldiers were killed and seven wounded on Thursday in separate attacks carried out by Kurdish militants targeting troops stationed in the southeastern Turkish province of Hakkari and in northern Iraq, the Turkish military said.

According to a report by Reuters, militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) attacked troops positioned in northern Iraq, killing two soldiers and wounding two, the military said. A third soldier was killed and five wounded in the Çukurca district of Hakkari when militants attacked a military base, it said. Local media later reported that another two soldiers were killed and two wounded in the Şemdinli district of Hakkari, in what appeared to be a separate incident.

According to a Turkish General Staff statement, the incident, which happened in Kani Rash neighbourhood, also left two soldiers wounded. Turkish Armed Forces will “continue its fight against all terror organizations until the last terrorist is neutralized,” read the statement.

The military said it had killed 49 militants in air strikes in northern Iraq on Monday. The strikes were carried out in six regions of northern Iraq and targeted shelters, hideouts and weapons stocks, the military said.

The outlawed PKK, which has waged an insurgency in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast since the 1980s, has camps in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq, from which it frequently carries out attacks in nearby Hakkari.

The group is viewed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. More than 40,000 people, most of them Kurds, have been killed in the conflict.  The PKK  resumed its armed campaign against Turkey in July 2015. Since then, it has been responsible for the deaths of more than 1,200 Turkish security personnel and civilians, including a number of women and children.

Meanwhile, 5 civilians suffered injuries when rockets reportedly fired by PYD/PKK militants in Syria hit Turkey’s border province of Kilis on Thursday. Kilis Governor Mehmet Tekinarslan told Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency that two rockets were fired, one of them hitting an office building in the city center. The attacks come amid the Turkish-led military operation in the northwestern Afrin region. Tekinarslan said the injured were taken to the state hospital while security officers secured the area.

On Thursday, Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said a total of 800 Kurdish militants have been killed in Afrin region as part of Turkey’s ongoing military operation. “Of course, this number will increase by the evening,” said Erdoğan, while speaking at Turkish Youth Foundation’s gathering at Presidential Complex.

The Turkish military and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces took control of the Bülbül town center in the northern part of Syria from the PYD/PKK on Thursday, according to a report by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency (AA). AA said this marks the first time Operation Olive Branch forces capture a town center from the Kurdish armed groups.

Since the beginning of the Afrin operation, which was launched by Turkey on Jan. 20 to eliminated the PYD/PKK and allegedly ISIL militants in northwestern Syria, the Turkey-backed forces freed a total of 29 points, including one town center, 20 villages, six inhabited areas, seven strategic mounts or hills.

According to a report by pro-Kurdish Fırat news agency (ANF) on Thursday, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which consists of PKK/YPG groups, held a press conference in Ayn Isa town of Kurds’ Girê Spî Canton and claimed that Kurdish militants have killed 473 members of the Turkish army and Free Syrian Army (FSA).

SDF has also claimed that 32 bodies of Turkish soldiers and FSA militants remain in the areas of clashes their cannot be retrieved by Turkish army and FSA. According to SDF claims, a drone was downed and 25 military vehicles, including armored vehicles such as tanks and panzers, were destroyed by Kurdish armed groups. 11 armored vehicles were left unusable by Turkish troops and FSA fighters.

Ciwan Mihemed, Chief physician of the Avril Hospital in Afrin, which is targeted by the Turkish military and FSA militants for 12 days, has cited figures from Avrin Hospital alone and stated that 47 civilians have been killed by Turkish military-FSA attacks between January 20-30, 2018. According to Mihemed, of the 47 killed civilians, 16 are children, 11 women and 20 men.

Regarding those injured, physician Mihemed said that 76 people, who were seriously injured, were transferred to the Avrin Hospital alone in the same period. Among the injured are 17 children, 14 women and 45 men.

On the other hand, the Syrian government described Turkish offensive in Syria’s Afrin region as an illegal “aggression” on Thursday and said it would deal with it accordingly. “The Turkish military operation in northern Syria is a blatant aggression,” said a foreign ministry statement circulated on state media. The unauthorized presence of foreign forces represents “occupation and will be dealt with on this basis,” it said.

The UN humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland has also said on Thursday that a United Nations humanitarian task force has been unable to make deliveries to desperate Syrians for the past two months as President Bashar al-Assad’s government has withheld approval for aid convoys.

Before they can move into besieged areas or across front lines, the convoys require letters from the government and security guarantees from armed groups. “It’s an all-time low in giving us the facilitation letters,” Egeland told reporters after meeting senior diplomats in Geneva. Insurgents fighting Assad’s forces were also creating obstacles, contributing to the worst situation since 2015, he said.

Egeland called on Russia, Turkey and Iran to de-escalate the fighting in Idlib governorate, which he said was “screaming for a ceasefire.” “When we need their ability to influence the parties the most, in this bleak hour for humanitarian work, humanitarian diplomacy seems to be totally impotent. We’re getting nowhere at the moment.” This week Russia convened a Syrian peace congress in Sochi. Egeland said it had so far not resulted in any progress but he hoped that it would.

Air strikes hit two crowded markets in Idlib this week, killing at least 31 people, and have deprived hundreds of thousands of healthcare. “I told the members of the humanitarian task force, we cannot have conventional warfare in what is essentially a refugee camp,” Egeland said.

Further north, a Turkish offensive in Afrin district has displaced about 15,000 people, Egeland said, adding that “There are also reports… that local authorities have made it hard for people to flee from the Afrin area.”

And outside Damascus, the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, where almost 400,000 people are under siege and about 750 need urgent medical evacuation, desperately needs a pause in the fighting, he said. “We have indications from both sides that they want it, but it hasn’t happened. And it’s both sides that have to help us here. There are air raids, fighting from the government side, but there is a barrage of mortars and grenades going from this area going into civilian neighborhoods in Damascus.”

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