- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 23, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) - France’s top diplomat and the U.S. defense secretary Tuesday urged Turkey to exercise restraint in its offensive against an enclave controlled by a Kurdish militia in northern Syria, where civilians are reportedly on the run or hunkered down in basements and caves in fear of the advancing Turkish military and allied troops.

The calls for restraints come as Turkey pressed ahead with its operations in Afrin for the fourth straight day, meeting stiff resistance from the Kurdish militia that controls the enclave.

Encircling Afrin from three areas, Turkish troops and allied fighters have been attempting to push their way into the area while Kurdish fighters push back.

Access to Afrin is restricted and it is difficult to independently verify developments of the battles or the ensuing humanitarian situation. International aid groups also have no presence in Afrin, which is surrounded by Turkey and rival Syrian forces.

On Tuesday, the Kurdish militia, known as the People’s Defense Units or YPG, regained control of a village breached by the Turkish forces earlier. The Turkish forces were also repelled from a hill they seized a day earlier on the eastern edge of the district.

France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said intense fighting between Turkish troops and the U.S.-allied Kurdish militia in recent days is a sign that new conflicts could erupt in the region as the Islamic State group is defeated.

He warned that without a political solution to the multi-sided Syrian civil war, the region could again explode with conflicts “just as dramatic” as the war on IS.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis also warned that the fighting was distracting from the war on terror and disrupting humanitarian relief efforts.

“The violence in Afrin disrupts what was a relatively stable area of Syria,” he said while traveling in Asia. “It distracts from the international efforts to ensure the defeat of ISIS.”

Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, in north Syria is straining relations with its NATO allies. The U.S. military is a partner of the YPG and operates bases in Kurdish-controlled territory in north Syria but not near or in Afrin.

Turkey says it aims to create a 30-kilometer (20-mile) deep “secure zone” in Afrin, a Kurdish-controlled enclave on its border. At least three Turkish soldiers were killed since the offensive began Saturday.

Activists say at least 27 civilians were killed in Afrin during the Turkish offensive.

Meanwhile, Turkish police have arrested at least 55 people in a sweep against alleged supporters of the YPG inside Turkey, according to Anadolu Agency.

Turkey says the YPG - a group it considers a terrorist organization - is an extension of an outlawed Kurdish rebel group that it is fighting inside its own borders, and it has found common cause with Syrian opposition groups who view the YPG as a counter-revolutionary force in Syria’s intricate civil war.

As Turkey’s military and allied Syrian forces pressed their campaign, Turkey shelled a city in northeastern Syria, hundreds of miles away from the Afrin front, said a spokesman for the YPG.

Nureddine Mehmud said Turkey fired on Qamishli and other towns along the Syrian-Turkish border on Tuesday, calling it a diversion from the main campaign in Afrin. There were no reported casualties.

Mehmud said the YPG and allied militias had managed to prevent the Turkish forces from making “any real progress” in Afrin.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Monitoring group said at least 27 civilians including eight children and four women were killed. The Observatory said 38 Kurdish fighters and 43 Turkish-backed Syrian militiamen have been killed in the clashes in Afrin since Saturday. Most of the civilians were killed in Turkish airstrikes, which have targeted towns and cities in the enclave.

The fighting threatens to destabilize what was once a bastion of stability in a country convulsing with war. There are an estimated 800,000 civilians in Afrin, including many who arrived there after fleeing fighting from other parts of Syria.

The Observatory said that thousands of Afrin residents have fled the fighting but have not been able to leave the encircled enclave, including through roads controlled by the Syrian government.

Rezan Hiddo, a Kurdish official in the town of Afrin, said people are locked down in their homes because of the offensive.

“The strikes are from aircraft, rocket launchers and artillery. There were also a number of attempts to advance on the ground “on a number of fronts,” he said. “This is causing townspeople to take cover in basements. People in the villages are hiding in their farms, while those in the mountains are taking cover in caves for protection.”

Hiddo said since 2012, when Afrin came under control of the YPG, the town has suffered varying degrees of siege, first by opposition fighters, then Islamic State militants who were in north Syria, and then now.

“The Turkish army is besieging Afrin from three sides,” Hiddo said. “There is only one narrow corridor that links it to Aleppo. The area suffers from lack and shortage of supplies. There are no international aid groups, like in other towns. Afrin has been treated unjustly.”

The war in Syria has drawn in militaries from around the world as a crackdown against anti-government protests in 2011 spiraled into a conflict with global dimensions. At least 400,000 people have been killed and half the country’s population has been displaced by the war.


Associated Press writer Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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