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story.lead_photo.caption Turkish army tanks on Monday enter Afrin, an enclave in northern Syria controlled by U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters, from Hassa, Turkey.

HASSA, Turkey -- Turkish troops and their allies advanced Monday against a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia in northwestern Syria, according to the militia and a war monitoring group.

The Turkish ground and air offensive, code-named Operation Olive Branch, began Saturday. Turkey says it aims to create a 20-mile deep "secure zone" in Afrin, the Kurdish-controlled enclave on its border.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters while traveling from Paris that while Turkey had "legitimate security concerns" about terrorists crossing the border, "this is a tough situation where there are a lot of civilians mixed in."

He added that the U.S. has asked Turkey to "just try to be precise, try to limit your operation, try to show some restraint."

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rejected that call in a defiant message that underscored the deepening rift between the NATO allies over the Kurdish militias.

"We are determined. Afrin will be sorted out. We will take no step back," he said at a meeting of business leaders in the capital, Ankara.

Without elaborating, he said that Turkey reached an agreement with Russia -- which backs Syrian President Bashar Assad -- over the operation.

"America says the timing [of the operation] should be clear," Erdogan said. "Well, was your timing in Afghanistan clear? Is your time in Iraq done?"

The Kurdish militia has blamed Russia for the Afrin attack, saying Russian officials have urged it to hand over the enclave to the Syrian government to avoid the Turkish offensive. Russian troops stationed in the Afrin district had redeployed ahead of the Turkish offensive, which also includes airstrikes.

At least 18 civilians have been killed in Afrin, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian war. One Syrian refugee was killed in a Turkish border town after rockets were launched from Syria.

Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Moscow is "carefully watching the operation" and is in touch with both the Syrian and the Turkish government.

Skirmishes between Turkish troops and Kurdish fighters also broke out farther east in Syria. Erdogan has promised to push to the town of Manbij to the east, which the Kurdish fighters had liberated of Islamic State militants in 2016 and currently administer.

The Turkish military announced late Monday its first fatality in the operation. It said a "heroic" soldier was killed in clashes with Syrian Kurdish militants and the Islamic State near Turkey's border province of Kilis.

The U.N. Security Council convened late Monday to discuss the situation in Syria, though it issued no statement after the briefings. Francois Delattre, France's ambassador to the U.N., said he told the Security Council that Syria is at "a crossroads," with the worst scenario leading to fragmentation and ethnic cleansing, and the best scenario leading to peace.

A NATO statement said it has contacted Turkey over the offensive. NATO said Turkey has suffered from terrorism and has the right to self-defense, but it urged Turkey to do so in a "proportionate and measured way."

Turkish anger

Turkey sees the Syrian Kurdish fighters, known as the People's Defense Units, as linked to insurgents waging a battle for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey. Washington, meanwhile, has turned to the Syrian Kurds as a proxy force against the Islamic State extremist group and a buffer against attempts by the extremists to reclaim territory.

The U.S. has offered direct military and logistical support to a Kurdish-led group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, which spearheaded the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. Erdogan on Monday repeated his criticism of Washington's support for the Kurdish militia, saying the U.S. should have partnered with Turkey against the Islamic State.

With the extremist group's near-total defeat in both Syria and Iraq, the U.S. said it would create a 30,000-strong border force of existing Kurdish and Arab Syrian Democratic Forces members to ensure the group would not return.

That announcement angered Turkey, and Tillerson has tried to walk back the U.S. position, saying it was portrayed incorrectly. The U.S. focus in recent years has been on eastern Syria. The area west of the Euphrates River, including Afrin, has been more of a problem for the U.S. because Turkey had said it would not accept a Kurdish military presence there.

The Kurdish force said it considers Turkey's offensive a "flagrant hostility" to all Syrians that would distract from the fight against the extremists and help them flourish. In a statement, the Kurdish fighters said Afrin will be a "quagmire" for the Turkish army.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said Sunday that Turkey gave the U.S. military advance notice of its Afrin offensive.

Activists say Turkey has mobilized about 10,000 Syrian fighters to storm Afrin, with some stationed in Azaz on the eastern edge of Afrin, and others to the south in Atmeh. There are an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 Kurdish fighters in the enclave, home to about 800,000 civilians.

Christians and Yazidis living in Afrin fear persecution by the advancing Turkish-led forces, which they say include "jihadist groups," said Irfan Ortac, chairman of the Yazidi Association in Germany.

The Yazidi community in Syria, a religious minority, lives mostly in Kurdish-controlled areas. Ortac estimated 15,000 Yazidis live in Afrin.

The United Nations is ready to help people who might flee from the Afrin enclave, the top U.N. official in Syria said Monday.

"If and when we have verification of people in need, wherever they move to, we will be able to assist," Ali Al-Za'tari said, though he added it was not yet clear if people are fleeing the fighting in northwestern Syria.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Syrian Kurdish militia waged a fierce counteroffensive late Sunday, repelling the Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters from the two villages they briefly captured. The Observatory said Turkey-backed troops were trying once again to enter Afrin.

Access to Afrin is restricted, making it difficult to independently verify developments.

Kurdish and Turkish media also reported a cross-border exchange of fire hundreds of miles east of Afrin.

The Kurdish Hawar news agency said Kurdish fighters returned cross-border fire in northeastern Hassakeh province, a predominantly Kurdish area bordering Iraq. A Turkish official in southeastern Turkey could not confirm the report.

The Observatory reported the skirmishes and said there also were reports of an exchange of fire to the west, where the private Dogan news agency said a Turkish soldier was wounded by a sniper in Ras al-Ayn. The Turkish military, along with special operations teams, returned fire on the building with anti-aircraft weapons and "neutralized" the sniper, Dogan reported.

Syrian war

The fighting between Turkish troops and Kurdish militias comes as Syria continues its civil war against rebels. Al-Za'tari described conditions in the besieged rebel-held Damascus suburbs known as eastern Ghouta as "terrible," saying that no aid has entered the area since December.

"Access sometimes is very difficult, or even near impossible because of ongoing fighting," he said.

Government forces have been pounding eastern Ghouta for weeks, killing and wounding dozens of people. Insurgents have fired shells into Damascus, also killing and wounding dozens, including nine dead on Monday alone, including a 3-year-old child, according to hospital officials and state media.

Government forces had recently tightened their siege on the area, home to some 400,000 people, leading to severe shortages of food, fuel and medicine as winter sets in, according to opposition activists.

"For people who are civilians, I can only say that it's quite difficult because the access that they have to basic necessities is rather constrained, the prices of commodities are high [and] medical services are low," al-Za'tari said. "We need to get assistance into Ghouta regardless of the control party or authority in that region."

Al-Za'tari said there are currently about 500,000 people living in 10 besieged areas around Syria. He added that if those who are hard to reach are added, the figure rises to about 3 million.

The U.N. official said there are about 6 million Syrians who are internally displaced. Another 5 million have fled to neighboring countries.

He said the U.N. spent $1.7 billion in Syria last year through the humanitarian response plan. He said it plans to spend $3.5 billion this year.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is accusing Russia of "costing innocent Syrian lives" amid new reports of a suspected chemical attack.

Activists and rescue teams say the Syrian government launched an attack with suspected poisonous gas that affected nearly 20 civilians in a rebel-held suburb near Damascus.

U.S. State Department spokesman Heather Nauert said Moscow's "unwillingness or inability to restrain the Assad regime is costing innocent Syrian lives," and she blamed Russia for thwarting efforts at the U.N. "to protect those civilian lives."

Nauert called on Russia to bring Assad's government to the table for talks on a political resolution to the civil war.

Information for this article was contributed by Mehmet Guzel, Bassem Mroue, Sarah El Deeb, Zeynep Bilginsoy and staff members of The Associated Press; by Erin Cunningham of The Washington Post; and by Tracy Wilkinson of the Los Angeles Times.

A Section on 01/23/2018

Print Headline: Turks push harder on Kurds in Syria

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