Turkey’s president said Sunday the Turkish military and allied Syrian forces have taken “total” control of the town center of Afrin, a major development in the nearly two-months offensive against a Syrian Kurdish militia that controls the area.
The Kurdish militia called the assault on Afrin an “occupation” and vowed a “new phase” of guerrilla tactics against Turkish troops and its allied Syrian fighters.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Turkish flag and the flag of the Syrian opposition fighters have been raised in the town, previously controlled by the Kurdish militia known as the People’s Defense Units, or YPG.
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“Many of the terrorists had turned tail and run away already,” Erdogan said in a speech in western Turkey.
The militia said it had evacuated the town of the civilians. Footage of long lines of vehicles leaving the town was aired on Syrian state-run TV, while many residents got out on foot or on motorcycles heading to government-controlled areas nearby.
Later Sunday, limited fighting was reported in some pockets in Afrin town while Turkish military said it was combing the area for land mines and explosives.
Turkey views the Kurdish forces in the Afrin enclave along the border as terrorists linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long insurgency within Turkey’s borders.
Ankara launched the operation, codenamed Olive Branch, against the town and surrounding areas on Jan. 20, slowly squeezing the militia and hundreds of thousands of civilians into the town center. Forty six Turkish soldiers have been killed since then.
Erdogan has repeatedly said that Turkey will not allow a “terror corridor” along its border. He has vowed to push east after Afrin, threatening to head to Manbij, a Kurdish-run town to the east where U.S. troops have also maintained a presence after it was clear of Islamic State militants in 2016.
Washington’s support to the YPG, including arming the militia and relying on it to battle IS in eastern Syria, has strained relations between Turkey and the U.S.
Footage by Turkey’s private Dogan news agency showed Syrian fighters shooting in the air in celebration.
In another Dogan video, a Syrian fighter is seen shooting at a statue symbolizing the Kurdish new year celebrations that are also being held this week, before a bulldozer attempts to pull it down. The statue is of Kawa, a mythological hero in Iran’s Zagros mountains who defeated a brutal ruler and lit fires to spread the news, ushering in spring.
Turkey’s military meanwhile tweeted that its forces are now conducting combing operations to search for land mines and explosives. Government spokesman Bekir Bozdag tweeted that Turkey would take steps to restore daily life and ensure access to food and health care. “Our job is not done yet, we have a lot more work. But terror and terrorists in Afrin are over,” he said.
The army posted a video on social media showing a soldier holding a Turkish flag and a man waving the Syrian opposition flag on the balcony of the district parliament building with a tank stationed on the street. The soldier called the capture a “gift” to the Turkish nation and to fallen soldiers on the anniversary of a famous World War I victory.
Turkey is marking the 103rd anniversary of the battle of Gallipoli, where the Ottoman Empire repelled an invasion by Allied forces after several months of heavy fighting.
Afrin appeared largely empty. Turkish TVs filmed some residents celebrating the arriving troops.
A Kurdish official, Hadia Yousef, said the YPG had evacuated the remaining civilians to avoid “massacres.”
Azad Mohamed, a resident of Afrin who fled the fighting, said he spent two days on the road until he reached relatives in eastern Syria. “It was collective displacement. There was an endless line along the road,” he said. He said there were still armed fighters when he left the town who had vowed to keep up the fight.
“The question is will those boors ever allow us to return to our homes?” Mohamed said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said nearly 200,000 people have fled the Afrin region in recent days amid heavy airstrikes, entering Syrian government-held territory nearby. Syrian State TV on Sunday broadcast footage of a long line of vehicles and civilians on foot leaving Afrin. Erdogan has said the people of Afrin will return.
Salih Muslim, a senior Kurdish official living in exile in Europe, tweeted that Kurdish fighters had withdrawn, saying “the struggle will continue and the Kurdish people will keep defending themselves.”
In a press conference outside of Afrin, Kurdish official Othman Sheik Issa said a new phase of the fight will begin, when the militia will rely on “hit and run tactics” to target Turkish troops and its allied forces. He said YPG fighters remain deployed in areas of Afrin.
“Our forces in all parts of Afrin will turn into a continuous nightmare for them,” Issa said. “The resistance will continue in Afrin until it is all liberated and it goes back to its rightful owners.” He said more than 800 YPG fighters have been killed in the 58 days of fighting, and estimated that 500 civilians were killed. The Observatory puts the number of casualties at over 280 civilians, adding that more than 1,500 Kurdish fighters have been killed since Jan.20. Turkey has rejected claims of civilian casualties and said more than 3,600 “terrorists” have been killed.
Turkey launched an earlier cross-border operation in 2016 to clear an area in northern Syria of IS and the YPG, preventing the Kurdish group from linking Afrin with the much larger territories it holds to the east.
Turkey also fears the establishment of a Kurdish self-ruled zone in Syria that could inspire its own Kurdish minority to press for greater autonomy. A peace process with the PKK collapsed in 2015, reigniting a conflict that has killed tens of thousands over more than three decades.
The Kurds are the largest stateless ethnic group in the Middle East, with some 30 million living in an area split between Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.