Turkish jets pound US-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria enclave

Istanbul (dpa) – Turkish fighter jets began striking the positions of US-backed Kurdish fighters in their enclave across the border in north-western Syria on Saturday.

The army said 108 Kurdish targets were hit, including an airport, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported. Television footage showed smoke plumes rising over the area near Turkey's southern border.

The air campaign, named "Olive Branch," was launched after eight days of heavy cross-border artillery shelling by Turkish soldiers. Its goal is to "neutralize terrorists" in Afrin, the Turkish Armed Forces said in a statement cited by Anadolu.
Turkish media reported that Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fighters were on the ground in Afrin. But it was not clear if Turkish troops had crossed the border, a move that had the potential to lead to a confrontation with US and Russian troops in the region.
Turkey argues that the Kurdish militias controlling Afrin are linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a group fighting for greater autonomy for the country's sizeable Kurdish minority. Ankara considers the PKK a terrorist group.
The military operation could raise tension with the United States, as the Kurdish fighters in Afrin have been a key ally of its campaign against Islamic State extremists.
In addition, the Kurds have a working relationship with Russia, which set up a military presence there months ago.
Russia's Defence Ministry said Saturday it was withdrawing its troops from Afrin, while the Foreign Ministry in Moscow urged both sides to exercise restraint, according to Russian news agencies.
Turkey's Foreign Ministry said Ankara had informed all parties involved in the Syrian conflict, including the United Nations and the Syrian government in Damascus, which had warned Ankara against attacking Afrin.
This marks the second Turkish incursion into northern Syria following the 2016 "Euphrates Shield" operation.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that at least 10 Turkish jets struck Afrin and that an unspecified number of civilians were injured as a result.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) group said at least six people had been injured, including two children.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the military was not targeting civilians in an interview with private broadcaster NTV on Saturday.
Turkey's chief of staff and intelligence chief held talks with their Russian counterparts in Moscow on Thursday "to coordinate" regarding a possible offensive in Afrin, Cavusoglu said earlier Saturday, according to Anadolu.
Cavusoglu held a phone conversation with the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the private Dogan news agency reported, without specifying the content of the conversation
In recent days, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly expressed Ankara's staunch opposition to reports that Washington was planning to set up new 30,000-strong security force in the border region with the support of Kurdish militias.
Ankara has long criticized Washington over its alliance with Syrian Kurdish militias in the fight against the Islamic State extremists. Turkey has asked its NATO ally to sideline the militias, whom it considers terrorists.
Both Tillerson and the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State in Syria has denied the reports of a new border security force.
Erdogan said Saturday that Turkey is determined to oust the Kurdish militia from its borders with Syria.
"Manbij will follow this," Erdogan said, referring to a second town in northern Syria held by the Kurds.
Turkey controls about 2,000 square kilometres in northern Syria and has troops stationed in Afrin's neighbouring Idlib province as part of a deal reached last year with Russia and Iran.


Saturday, January 20th 2018
By Ergin Hava, dpa

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