Published 1:49 pm, Tuesday, March 13, 2018
Photo: STRINGER, AFP/Getty Images
BEIRUT — Turkey said Tuesday its troops and allied Syrian fighters have encircled the Kurdish-held town of Afrin in northern Syria, putting hundreds of thousands of civilians under siege and marking a significant military advance in the seven-week operation.
Turkey launched its assault on the border enclave on Jan. 20 to drive out Syrian Kurdish forces that it views as “terrorists” linked to Kurdish rebels fighting inside Turkey. The Turkish military said the siege of Afrin, the main town in the enclave of the same name, began Monday after the military took control of “critical areas.”
A passage out of Afrin remained partially open, and thousands of people have reportedly fled the town, heading toward nearby areas controlled by the Syrian government. Syria’s Al-Ikhbariya TV showed cars, trucks and tractors loaded with civilians driving out of the town.
Panic is spreading in the town as the Turkish forces approach, and some civilians have come under fire when they have tried to leave, according to residents and Syrian Kurdish officials.
Azad Mohamed, a 32-year-old resident, said his relatives were fired upon as they tried to escape Monday, forcing them to turn back. He said he can’t decide whether to risk the journey out of Afrin with his two children or to remain in place.
“Most of the time, I swear, I am acting like a madman. When I sit down for two minutes, I get up again and start pacing to ease the tension,” he said in a series of text messages. “Every time I remember they (Turkish forces) are closer, I think of my wife and kids and parents. I am afraid and I feel like there is a volcano in my belly.”
Col. Moataz Raslan, commander of one of the Turkey-allied opposition groups, said the Kurdish fighters in Afrin should surrender or leave the area. He said it was the Kurdish fighters who were preventing civilians from leaving and firing on those who do.
But Mohamed said most of the Kurdish fighters are from the area and would never give up their hometown.
“Their families will never forgive them if they leave,” he said.
A top Syrian Kurdish official, Fawza Yousef, described intense Turkish shelling of the town and said they expect Turkish forces to invade soon.
Sarah El Deeb and Suzan Fraser are Associated Press writers.