Turks, Kurds clash as Rus­sia holds talks

Peace con­fer­ence over­shad­owed by fight­ing on key hill.

Austin American-Statesman - - MORE OF TODAY’S TOP NEWS - By Mehmet Guzel and Sarah el Deeb

In­tense KILIS, TURKEY — clashes erupted Mon­day on a strate­gic hill­top in north­west­ern Syria as Kur­dish forces tried to en­ter the area a day af­ter it was cap­tured by Turk­ish troops.

Turk­ish mil­i­tary of­fi­cials can­celed a gov­ern­ment-or- ga­nized press tour to Bur­sayah Hill, sep­a­rat­ing the Kur­dish-held en­clave of Afrin from the Turkey-con­trolled town of Azaz, due to what they de­scribed as “se­cu­rity con­cerns.”

Sep­a­rately, in the nearby rebel-held prov­ince of Idlib, sus­pected Syr­ian gov­ern­ment airstrikes killed at least 21 peo­ple and put a hospi­tal out of order.

The vi­o­lence has over- shad­owed a peace con­fer- ence hosted by Rus­sia that was due to open in Sochi on Mon­day. Rus­sia, a key ally of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad, says it in­vited 1,600 rep­re­sen­ta­tives to the Syr­ian Congress of Na­tional Dia­logue, but so far only the gov­ern- ment and op­po­si­tion rep­re­sen­ta­tives tol­er­ated by it have shown up.

The main Syr­ian oppo- sition body has boy­cotted the talks.

The main Syr­ian Kurd- ish mili­tia, which is fight­ing in Afrin and con­trols some 25 per­cent of Syr­ian ter­ri­tory, has also de­clined to at­tend, say­ing it holds Rus­sia re­spon­si­ble for the Turk­ish of­fen­sive.

Alexan­der Lavren­tiev, Rus­sia’s en­voy for Syria, down­played the vi­o­lence, say­ing the sit­u­a­tion in Afrin has “some­how sta­bi­lized.””

“We still hope that com- mon sense will pre­vail and that the leadership of the united Syr­ian op­po­si­tion will still de­cide to at­tend the congress. This pos­si­bil­ity has not been ruled out, and the in­vi­ta­tions re­main on the ta­ble,” he said, ac­cord­ing to Rus­sian state agency Tass.

The Turk­ish in­cur­sion be­gan Jan. 20, with Ankara say­ing it seeks to drive “ter­ror­ists” away from its bor­der and cre­ate a safe zone in the area. Turkey con­sid­ers the Syr­ian Kur­dish mili­tia in con­trol of Afrin, the Peo­ple’s De­fense Units or YPG, an ex­ten­sion of the Kur­dish in­sur­gency within its bor­ders.

On Mon­day, Turk­ish au­thor­i­ties said they had de­tained 311 peo­ple for al­legedly en­gag­ing in “ter­ror­ist pro­pa­ganda” through so­cial me­dia post­ings crit­i­cal of the Afrin of­fen­sive.

Turk­ish troops and al­lied Syr­ian forces have met with stiff re­sis­tance as they try to push into Afrin, and the cap­ture of Bur­sayah Hill marked their big­gest ad­vance since the start of the of­fen­sive.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pro-Turkey Syr­ian fight­ers and Turk­ish troops sig­nal their cap­ture Sun­day of Bur­sayah Hill in north­west­ern Syria. The hill sep­a­rates the Kur­dish-held en­clave of Afrin from the Turkey-con­trolled town of Azaz. Turkey launched an of­fen­sive Jan. 20.

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