Turkish Forces Overtake Northern Syrian Town as Citizens Flee Bombardments

Erdogan claims forces entered Afrin before dawn, meeting little resistance ■ A senior Syrian Kurdish official confirms rebels withdrawal ■ Russia: 25,000 people flee enclave

A Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fires into the air as they gather in the city of Afrin in northern Syria on March 18, 2018.
BULENT KILIC/AFP

Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies swept into the northwestern Syrian town of Afrin on Sunday, taking control of the town center after Kurdish YPG forces pulled out, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.

A spokesman for the rebel fighters said they entered Afrin before dawn from three fronts, meeting no resistance. A Syrian Kurdish spokesperson denied this earlier, saying the fighting in Afrin persisted.

This has since changed, as Salih Muslim, a senior official living in exile in Europe, tweeted Sunday that the withdrawal from Afrin doesn't mean his group has given up, saying "the struggle will continue and the Kurdish people will keep defending themselves."

“Afrin city center is under control as of 8:30 this morning,” Erdogan told a rally marking the 103rd anniversary of the World War One Gallipoli campaign. Turkish and Free Syrian Army flags had been raised in Afrin, he said.

"Most of the terrorists have already fled with tails between their legs. Our special forces and members of the Free Syrian Army are cleaning the remains and the traps they left behind,” Erdogan said. “In the center of Afrin, symbols of trust and stability are waving instead of rags of terrorists.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitor based in Britain, said Turkish and FSA fighters controlled around half of the town, but that fighting continued on Sunday morning in some areas.

Yousef told The Associated Press on Sunday that the Kurdish militia evacuated civilians from the town because of ongoing "massacres" by Turkish and allied forces. Tens of thousands have fled Afrin in recent days as Turkish forces and allied Syrian fighters have advanced.

Despite an exodus of more than 150,000 people in recent days, thousands of civilians remained in Afrin. Some 1,400 people have been killed in the past month.

The Russian military reported more than 25,000 people have fled Syria's besieged eastern Ghouta region on Sunday, with Maj. Gen. Vladimir Zolotukhin being quoted by Russian news agencies as saying they left Sunday through the town of Hamouria.

Zolotukhin works with the Russian center for reconciling Syria's warring parties. He said the center is distributing bedding and food to those fleeing, who are being forced into government-held regions.