Its troops, al­lies ring Afrin, Turkey says

Mil­i­tary siege sends thou­sands of civil­ians flee­ing in panic out of Syr­ian town

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL - SARAH EL DEEB AND SUZAN FRASER In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Philip Issa, Bassem Mroue, Maamoun Youssef and Edith M. Led­erer of The As­so­ci­ated Press.

BEIRUT — Turkey said Tues­day that 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 at­tack on the bor­der en­clave 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 [the 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 was 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 he ex­pects Turk­ish forces to “in­vade” soon.

Else­where in Syria, dozens of civil­ians were evac­u­ated from the be­sieged, rebel-held Da­m­as­cus sub­urb of east­ern Ghouta, ar­riv­ing on foot and in buses to an army check­point set up by the Syr­ian and Rus­sian mil­i­taries.

The Syr­ian Amer­i­can Med­i­cal So­ci­ety, which sup­ports health fa­cil­i­ties in east­ern Ghouta, said 31 pa­tients were evac­u­ated along with their fam­i­lies, amount­ing to 170 civil­ians. The med­i­cal so­ci­ety said about 1,034 peo­ple still in­side the en­clave need im­me­di­ate med­i­cal evac­u­a­tion.

The United Na­tions says it ob­served the evac­u­a­tion of 147 civil­ians, in­clud­ing 10 in crit­i­cal med­i­cal con­di­tion, from Douma, the largest town in east­ern Ghouta. U.N. spokesman Stephane Du­jar­ric told re­porters that there are plans to send an­other hu­man­i­tar­ian con­voy to Douma “in the com­ing days.”

About 400,000 peo­ple are es­ti­mated to be trapped in east­ern Ghouta, which has been un­der a crip­pling block­ade and heavy bom­bard­ment for weeks. Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces have split the re­gion into three sep­a­rate pock­ets in re­cent days in rapid ad­vances against rebels.

The largest rebel group in the area, the Army of Is­lam, reached a deal with Rus­sian forces to evac­u­ate the wounded but nev­er­the­less vowed to fight to the end.

“We will stay in our Ghouta to de­fend it un­til we achieve one of two good things,” spokesman Hamza Bayraq­dar said in a video state­ment, us­ing an Is­lamic ex­pres­sion that means vic­tory or mar­tyr­dom.

Op­po­si­tion ac­tivists say more than 1,100 civil­ians have been killed since the lat­est of­fen­sive be­gan in Fe­bru­ary. In Douma, res­i­dents and dis­placed fam­i­lies were sleep­ing in shops and in the streets as base­ments and un­der­ground shel­ters filled up.

The Ob­ser­va­tory and the op­po­si­tion’s Syr­ian Civil De­fense re­ported airstrikes and shelling Tues­day morn­ing on sev­eral towns that killed and wounded more than 20 peo­ple.

The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment, mean­while, said troops had seized con­trol of Qadam af­ter mil­i­tants and civil­ians were evac­u­ated from the dis­trict south of Da­m­as­cus.

AP/HASAN KIRMIZITAS

Turkey-backed Free Syr­ian Army fighters ad­vance Tues­day in the vil­lage of Der Mis­mis south­east of Afrin, Syria. Turk­ish troops and al­lied Syr­ian op­po­si­tion fighters have laid siege to Syr­ian Kur­dish-held Afrin, the Turk­ish mil­i­tary says.

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