Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has said that Turkish-backed rebels have taken total control of the Kurdish-majority city of Afrin in northern Syria.
Yesterday morning, President Erdogan said: “Units of the Free Syrian Army, which are backed by Turkish armed forces, took control of the centre of Afrin this morning at 8.30am (0530 GMT).”
Taking Afrin has been the main military objective of Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch”, a ground and air campaign launched on Saturday 20 January with the aim of defeating the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a leftist Kurdish militia group.
The Kurdish militia said it had evacuated civilians because of “massacres” committed by Turkish and allied rebel forces.
Tens of thousands have fled Afrin in recent days as Turkish forces and allied Syrian rebels have advanced.
Erdoğan said on Sunday that a “large number” of Kurdish fighters had “fled with their tails between their legs”. He added that Turkish Special Forces had been sent to the city.
The Turkish military also issued a statement yesterday confirming that Afrin city centre was under their control.
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The statement read: “Search operations to locate mines and other explosives are under way”.
The Turkish military posted a video on Twitter of a soldier raising a Turkish flag on a balcony.
Speaking at a ceremony marking the Battle of Dardanelles during World War One, Erdogan said: “Now the Turkish flag will fly over there! The flag of the Free Syrian Army will fly over there!”
More than 200,000 civilians have fled the Kurdish-majority city since Friday, and dozens have been killed in the area, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
The right group said on Sunday that more than 1,500 Kurdish fighters had been killed in the two-month offensive by Turkish forces and the Free Syrian Army (FSA on Afrin.
Most died in airstrikes and artillery fire, the group said, adding that more than 400 pro-Ankara rebels had also been killed since the beginning of the operation.
The Turkish government sees the YPG as a Syrian offshoot of the proscribed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), which has launched an armed n insurgency in the country since 1984.
Washington has provided weapons to the YPG, which it perceives as a strategic ally in the fight against “jihadists” in Syria, with Ankara’s military operation raising tensions between the two NATO allies.
According to figures released by the Turkish military, 46 Turkish soldiers have been killed since the start of Operation Olive Branch.
Afrin is one of several fronts in the seven-year-old Syrian war that has left more than 400,000 people dead and millions displaced.