Turks, Kurds clash as Russia holds talks
Peace conference overshadowed by fighting on key hill.
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.
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.