Turkey’s president has said civilians will be led out of the Syrian enclave of Afrin through a “special corridor”, as he turned up the heat on an offensive on the Kurdish-majority city.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkish troops and allied Syrian rebels would have completely encircled Afrin – home to more than 700,000 people – by the end of the day.
“All care is being taken. Right now the first civilians are being taken out of Afrin in vehicles through a special corridor,” the president said, as his forces bombed the last remaining road out.
Afrin, which is controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), is bordered to the north and west by Turkey and south by government-controlled Syrian territory.
Turkish raids killed 10 fighters loyal to the regime, which last month deployed forces to Afrin’s southern outskirts after the Kurds asked for help. Despite the Kurds’ desire for autonomy from Damascus, they have largely avoided direct confrontation while both were fighting Isil and rebel groups.
The fighters then shelled Turkish positions.
Much of the territory captured so far in Turkey’s two-month offensive has been rural, however any incursion into the more densely-populated city has the potential for high civilian casualties.
The escalation of violence in Afrin has killed displaced thousands of civilians and left those trapped in the enclave with limited supplies.
Azad Mohamed, a resident, said he waited in line for eight hours to get a few loaves of bread. Some people went back without getting any, he said.
The water supply to the city has also been cut off for a week after Turkish forces seized control of a key dam.
The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) warned that any evacuation of Afrin must adhere to humanitarian rules.
Turkey launched “Operation Olive Branch” with the aim of clearing YPG militants, which it considers terrorists, from along its southern frontier.
Mr Erdogan has also previously suggested that some of the more than three million Syrians currently seeking refuge in Turkey could be resettled in Afrin as it was “rightfully Arab land”.
Since the start of Syria’s conflict in 2011, the YPG and its allies have set up three autonomous regions in the north, including Afrin – which had a Kurdish majority before the war.
Nato member countries have remained relatively quiet over their ally’s offensive.
“The Kurdish YPG forces were celebrated for defeating Isil in Raqqa less than a year ago, and now as Turkey invades Afrin, the world is silent,” Rosa Gilbert, co-secretary of the UK-based Kurdistan Solidarity Campaign, told the Telegraph.
“There is the complicity of western governments who have allowed their Nato ally Turkey to carry out an unprovoked, illegal and illegitimate invasion using UK jets, German tanks and Italian helicopters.”
The Syrian war passes a grim seven-year milestone on Thursday, but instead of winding down the violence has only escalated.
Jan Egeland, a senior adviser to the United Nations, warned that the country could see “tremendous battles” for two remaining rebel enclaves even once a government onslaught on Eastern Ghouta is over.
International attention has focused on the most pressing battles for besieged Damascus pocket and for Afrin, but “our fear is that after Eastern Ghouta we may see tremendous battles in and around Idlib (in the far northwest) and, in the south, Deraa,” he said.