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Jan 21, 6:52 AM EST

Turkish troops attack Kurdish enclave in northern Syria


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AP Photo/Can Erok

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HASSA, Turkey (AP) -- Turkish troops and Syrian opposition forces attacked a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria on Sunday in their bid to drive a U.S.-allied Kurdish militia from the region.

Turkish officials said the troops entered Afrin a day after dozens of Turkish jets and artillery units at the border pounded Syrian Kurdish targets. A spokesman for the Kurdish fighters said the attack was repelled.

Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the People's Protection Units, or YPG, a terror organization and a security threat because of its affiliation to Kurdish rebels fighting in southeastern Turkey.

The group controls Afrin, in Syria's northwestern Aleppo province, as well as a swath of territory to the east along Turkey's border. The YPG also forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the main U.S. ally against the Islamic State group in Syria.

The state-run Anadolu Agency said the Turkish-backed fighters had penetrated 5 kilometers (3 miles) into Afrin as part of the offensive, codenamed Olive Branch.

In a statement, the Syrian opposition fighters battling alongside the Turkish troops said the combined force seized Shankal, a village on the northwestern edge of Afrin district.

SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali denied that Turkish troops had entered Afrin, saying Kurdish forces had been repelling attacks since Saturday. Bali said the SDF had sent reinforcements to Afrin.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the Kurdish militia and Turkish forces have clashed on the northern and western edges of Afrin. The Observatory said the Turkey-backed forces have entered Shankal and are clashing with the Kurds.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to expand the offensive to Manbij, a town to the east that Kurdish forces seized from the Islamic State group in a costly battle with the aid of the U.S.-led coalition. The town has since emerged as a model for U.S.-backed Kurdish rule of largely Arab areas.

An advance on Manbij by NATO member Turkey would pit two close U.S. allies against one another, adding another front to the already complex Syrian civil war.

Turkish troops first crossed into Syria after the Kurds captured Manbij in 2016, in part to prevent them from expanding westward and linking up to Afrin. At least 70 Turkish soldiers have been killed since then, most in battles with the Islamic State group, which has since been driven from nearly all the territory it once held in Syria.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told a group of journalists on Sunday that Turkey aims to create a 30-kilometer (20-mile) deep "secure zone" in Afrin, according to Turkish media reports. He told reporters that there were between 8,000 and 10,000 "terrorists" in Afrin.

Earlier Sunday, four rockets fired from Syria hit the Turkish border town of Kilis, prompting Turkish artillery to return fire, Gov. Mehmet Tekinarslan said. The rockets hit two houses and a workplace, and slightly wounded one person.

Associated Press journalists on the border saw a convoy of trucks, believed to belong to Syrian opposition fighters, carrying pick-up trucks mounted with arms. Artillery shelling could be heard in the distance.

Turkey has prepared around 10,000 Syrian fighters to storm Afrin, according Rami Abdurrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.

A Syrian commander speaking to the AP by phone from northern Syria said there were thousands of fighters positioned in Azaz, at the frontier with the Kurdish enclave, awaiting orders. Another commander said hundreds more were stationed in Atmeh, south of Afrin. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Turkish leaders were infuriated by an announcement by the U.S. military this week that it was going to create a 30,000-strong border force with the Kurdish fighters to secure northern Syria. Days later, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that the U.S. would maintain a military presence with the Kurds for the foreseeable future.

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El Deeb reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey contributed to this report.

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