The Turkish army on Saturday confirmed it had started a major new ground and air cross border operation against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in Syria, which Turkey deems to be a terror organization.
Dubbing the new campaign operation ‘Olive Branch’, the Turkish army said it had begun at 1400 GMT and was aimed against the YPG and also ISIS militants.
The army also said the operation would be carried out “with respect for Syria's territorial integrity” and stemmed from Turkey’s rights under international law.
In latest reports, Turkey’s state-run news agency said Turkish jets have attacked a military airport in northwest Syria that is under the control of a Syrian Kurdish military group.
Anadolu Agency said the jets struck Mannagh air base.
Separately, the agency quoted Turkey’s military officials as saying warplanes had so far struck 108 out of a total of 113 Syrian Kurdish militia targets in the Afrin region.
Turkey said it was informing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of its new offensive against Syrian Kurdish militia regarded as a terror group by Ankara, in a rare official contact with Damascus.
“We informed all parties on what we are doing. We are even informing the Syrian regime in writing,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the 24 TV broadcaster. “Even though we don’t have relations with the regime, we are taking our steps in compliance with the international law.”
Turkey has been one of the leading foes of Assad’s regime since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011.
Russia voices concern
Meanwhile, Russia voiced concern and urged restraint over a new Turkish operation to oust Kurdish militia from a northern Syrian enclave in Syria.
“Moscow is concerned at this news. We call on the opposing parties to show restraint,” the foreign ministry said in a statement after the launch of an operation which has also drawn US warnings.
Russia's Defense Ministry said it was pulling back troops that had been deployed near the Syrian city of Afrin after bombing strikes by Turkish warplanes.
In a statement reported on Russian news agencies, the ministry said Saturday that “to prevent possible provocations, to exclude the threat to life and health of Russian servicemen, the operational group of the Center for Reconciliation of warring parties and military police in the Afrin area is relocated to the Tell-Adjar area.”
Tell-Adjar is within a so-called “de-escalation zone” established in September.
There were no immediate reports of how many Russian servicemen were affected by the move.
Yildirim confirms aerial offensive
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Turkish jets had begun an aerial offensive against the Syrian Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin in northwestern Syria.
“As of this moment our brave Armed Forces have started the aerial offensive to eliminate the PYD and PKK and Daesh elements in Afrin,” said Yildirim at a speech in the city of Bilecik, referring to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party respectively, and using an Arabic acronym for the ISIS group.
Turkey’s state-run news agency, meanwhile, said that a group of Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces crossed into the area on Saturday as part of an offensive to oust a militia group Turkey considers to be terrorists.
Associated Press journalists at the Turkish border saw at least five jets heading toward Afrin. They also witnessed a convoy of buses, believed to be carrying Syrian opposition fighters, traveling along the border across from Afrin. The convoy included trucks mounted with machine guns.
Rojhat Roj, a spokesman for the Syrian Kurdish militia group, confirmed that a Turkish plane was striking Afrin city.
A Syrian Kurdish YPG spokesman in Afrin said people were wounded in Turkish air strikes on Afrin, even though it was unclear how many. Turkish warplanes were striking Afrin city and several villages around it, he said.
The warplanes struck residential parts of Afrin, forcing people to hole up in their homes and in shelters, a senior Kurdish official there said.
Hevi Mustafa, a top member of the civilian administration that governs Afrin, said several wounded people had arrived in the hospitals.
Syrian Kurdish YPG militia in a statement said that Turkish authorities have started “an aggressive war against our people in Afrin, targeting civilian districts with air strikes.”
YPG said “we have no choice but to resist” after the Turkish attacks. “Wwe will defeat this aggression like we have defeated other assaults against our cities.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had earlier said on Saturday that Ankara had “de-facto” already launched an operation on the ground to oust Kurdish militia from the Syrian town of Afrin.
“The Afrin operation has de-facto been started on the ground,” Erdogan said in a televised speech in the city of Kutahya, without specifying further.
“This will be followed by Manbij,” he added, referring to another Kurdish-controlled Syrian town to the east.
Speaking to the members of his ruling AK Party in the western province of Kutahya, Erdogan did not specify if that meant Turkish troops had crossed the border.
Earlier, the Turkish army said it launched new strikes on Saturday against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia in northern Syria. The army said it shelled Kurdish positions in Afrin on Friday and Saturday, hitting shelters and hideouts used by militants from three groups.
The army said it hit in "legitimate self defense" camps and refuges used by the YPG in response to fire coming from the Afrin region controlled by the militia group, which Turkey deems to be a terror organization.