An estimated 167,000 people have been displaced by recent hostilities in the Afrin province of northwestern Syria, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday, as it called for urgent aid to be distributed.
The WHO stated that the influx of displaced people has put additional strains on hosting communities with already-overwhelmed health facilities. Most of the people fled about 30 kilometers southeast to Tal Rifaat, while others traveled further south toward Aleppo to the towns of Nubul and Zahra and surrounding villages.
“Children, women, and men have undertaken harrowing journeys to flee Afrin and need urgent health assistance. Our staff has met civilians who reported walking for 36 hours to reach safer areas,” said Elizabeth Hoff, the WHO representative in Syria. “WHO calls on all parties to ensure that critically sick and injured civilians are referred to facilities that can provide proper treatment,” she said.
WHO also said it has deployed four mobile health teams to Tal Rifaat, Nubul and Zahra as well as delivering 10 tons of medical supplies sufficient for the treatment of 55,700 people. The organization stated that the second shipment of medicines and medical supplies for more than 64,000 is ready to be dispatched from Aleppo to Tal Rifaat, once access is guaranteed.
“For tens of thousands of civilians who remain in the city of Afrin and surrounding areas, WHO’s cross-border hub in Gaziantep, Turkey is helping health partners to scale-up health services, amid concerning shortages of medical supplies and staff,” the WHO statement added.
Meanwhile, according to a report by Reuters, people in Afrin queued up to receive hot food which was being distributed by the Turkish Red Crescent (Kızılay), while Turkish soldiers maintained security with armored vehicles moving through the streets.
“We are trying to bring life back to normal in the short and medium term here,” Kızılay’s president Kerem Kınık told Reuters. “Our mobile kitchens are here, and our crews are in the villages,” he said. Kızılay has distributed hot meals to 5,000 people in Afrin, according to Kınık.
Talking to reporters in Afrin, Kınık said that “I can say that mobilization has been initiated in the region by the Turkish Red Crescent in coordination with other nongovernmental organizations and AFAD [Disaster and Emergency Management Authority].”
Adil Şiraz, AFAD’s provincial director in southern Turkey’s Kilis province, said 2,000 packages of humanitarian aid had been sent to the region so far.
Around 60 journalists visited Afrin as part of a press tour organized by the Turkish General Staff and Turkey’s Directorate General of Press and Information.
“We want everything to be alright. We want our women and children to come back. They have not been able to return to their homeland,” said Afrin resident Abdurrahman Nahsen Süleymanoğlu.
Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also said on Saturday that Turkey will soon be with the people who are seeking its support along the Syrian border. Speaking at the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) ordinary provincial congress in the Black Sea province of Samsun, Erdoğan said, “We will not stop until we rescue our brothers in Syria and completely eliminate the trap that has been set for our country.”
Rejecting statements that Turkey was invading Syria through its Afrin operation, Erdoğan said, “Nobody can say ‘the Turkish army and Turkey are carrying out an invasion of Syria’,” and vowed to protect the people of Afrin, claiming civilians were starting to return. Later, in Ordu province, Erdoğan said 3,740 Kurdish militants had been “neutralized” since the start of Operation Olive Branch.
Syria’s Afrin region has been taken under “complete” control, the Turkish military said on Saturday, adding that efforts are in progress to help civilians return home safely. Turkish troops have also been continuing efforts to search and destroy homemade explosives and mines planted by terrorists in Afrin.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım also said on Saturday that no one can determine the region’s future without Turkey. “Stop at the west of Euphrates, don’t cross to its east. There is no such thing. There is no east or west for terror, it’s our main target until we completely get rid of it. We will do whatever is necessary. No one can determine the region’s future without Turkey,” he said in an address at Hasan Kalyoncu University in southern Gaziantep province.
He said the Turkish military has been conducting air and land operations “successfully” and that it would eliminate threats to its border security, territorial integrity and the security of life and property. “Wherever there is a terror threat, it is a target for us,” the prime minister added.
Later, Yıldırım also spoke at the Justice and Development Party (AKP) Youth Branch provincial congress in Gaziantep and said that “Syria and Iraq’s territorial integrity is essential for us. Turkey’s security depends on Syria and Iraq and their stability. Our main priority is to ensure peace in the region and at home,”
“Now life is resuming in Afrin. Governments are being formed by local elements there, just like in Jarabulus. When the region is cleared of explosives, the real owners/residents of city will return and settle there,” he added.
“We will destroy all Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) terror organizations in the region. Our priority is to provide peace at home. Those who want to prevent Turkey’s fight against terrorism will be disappointed,” Yıldırım said.
Turkish army sources also said on Saturday that Turkey’s military and its Syrian rebel allies have taken full control of northwest Syria’s Afrin region as aid workers distributed food to people in the area. A military source told Reuters the last remaining villages had been seized and control established overnight.
“Control has been completely achieved in the Afrin region, and search operations are continuing so that local people can return safely to their houses,” the source said.
Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch on Jan. 20 to clear People’s Protection Units (YPG)/PKK and allegedly ISIL militant groups from Afrin.