Kurdish-held town under siege
Turkish, Syrian forces advance, putting many civilians in line of fire
BEIRUT — Turkey said Tuesday that its troops and allied Syrian fighters had 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, which 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 reportedly have 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 was spreading in the town as the Turkish forces approached, and some civilians came under fire when they 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 mad man. 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.
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 come 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 Turkish forces were expected to “invade” soon.
Elsewhere in Syria, dozens of civilians were evacuated from the besieged, rebel-held Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta, arriving on foot and in buses at 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. It said another 1,034 people still inside the enclave need immediate medical evacuation.
The United Nations says it observed the evacuation of 147 civilians, including 10 people in critical condition, from Douma, the largest town in eastern Ghouta.
About 400,000 people are estimated to be trapped in eastern Ghouta, which has been under a crippling blockade and heavy bombardment for weeks.
Cars filled a road outside Afrin on Monday as civilians attempted to flee the advancement of Turkish and Syrian forces on the Kurdish-held Syrian town.