Turkey, allies say siege of Syria’s Afrin underway

BEIRUT (AP) – Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition fighters began a siege of the Syrian Kurdish-held town of Afrin, the Turkish military said yesterday, marking a significant advance in Ankara’s seven-week operation that also encircled hundreds of thousands of civilians.

The military said in a brief statement that the siege of Afrin, the main town in the enclave of the same name, had begun on Monday. It said the military took control of “critical areas” of the town but did not provide details.

Thousands of people started to flee Afrin on Monday as the Turkish troops got closer to the town, heading toward nearby areas controlled by the Syrian government.

Turkey launched a military offensive into the border enclave on January 20 to drive out Syrian Kurdish forces that it considers to be “terrorists” and an extension of Kurdish rebels fighting inside Turkey.

On Monday, dozens of civilians evacuated the 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.

This photo released by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets shows a member of the Syrian Civil Defense group carrying a boy wounded during airstrikes and shelling by Syrian government forces in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Syria on March 11. – AP

Russian news agencies said at least 100 civilians have been evacuated from eastern Ghouta, including 20 women and children. The Syrian government and the Russian military have set up a corridor outside eastern Ghouta to arrange the evacuation from the area, which is home to some 400,000 people.

Syrian government forces have split eastern Ghouta into three separate rebel-held pockets amid rapid advances in the past few days, dealing a major blow to the rebels.

The largest rebel group in eastern Ghouta vowed in a statement to stay in the area and fight advancing government forces until the end.

The rebel group’s statement came hours after it said it had reached an agreement with government-allied Russian forces to evacuate the wounded from the enclave. Its statement said the deal with the Russians was reached through the United Nations (UN).