Civilians flee Turkish shelling as Erdogan threatens to expand Syria offensive

Terrified residents of Syrian border towns tell of widespread destruction in Turkish bombardment

A Syrian woman carries a child as she arrives with others who fled from the town of Jandairis in the southwestern corner of the Afrin enclave, where Turkey and allied rebels have been conducting an offensive to oust Kurdish militias, in the city of Afrin on January 25, 2018.
Jandairis has been heavily targeted by Turkish air strikes and rockets as it sits close to the border and near a front line with pro-Ankara rebels. / AFP PHOTO / George OURFALIAN

Merhi Hassan and his family spent three days trapped in a basement as Turkey shelled their northern Syrian hometown.

The family then piled into a rusted pickup truck with whatever they could salvage from their demolished home in Jandairis and drove north to Afrin, the city at the heart of the Kurdish-held enclave by the same name.

"The bombardment wouldn't let us sleep. The shells hit every neighbourhood, they hit the generators and the bakery. Nothing is left," said Mr Hassan.

"Our house is gone. Our neighbour's house is gone. If I hadn't left, I would have died."

Turkey and allied Syrian rebels launched an offensive against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which controls the Afrin region, on Saturday. As part of the push, Ankara has been pounding the area's border towns with artillery fire and thousands of people have fled, many of them to Afrin city.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened on Friday to expand Turkey's offensive despite calls for restraint from its western allies, vowing to "clean up" the Syrian city of Manbij after driving the YPG from Afrin.

"Operation Olive Branch will continue until it reaches its goals. We will rid Manbij of terrorists, as it was promised to us, and our battles will continue until no terrorist is left until our border with Iraq," Mr Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.

The United States has raised concerns over the operation, and analysts say a military confrontation between the two Nato powers is possible since the US has a military presence in Manbij.

While Washington considers the YPG an important ally against ISIL in Syria, Ankara views the Syrian Kurd militia as a terror organisation allied to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) inside Turkey.

Turkey continued shelling YPG positions in Afrin on Friday, state-run news agency Anadolu reported.

Mr Erdogan said "343 terrorists have been neutralised" during the operation so far.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group for the conflict in Syria, has said 38 civilians have been killed as a result of Turkish shelling. Ankara claims it is doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties.

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According to the United Nations, more than 300,000 people live in the Afrin enclave, including more than 120,000 who have already been displaced at least once.

Those arriving in Afrin city from battered border regions have struggled to find adequate shelter and have settled into squalid conditions.

In one half-finished building, women and children sat cross-legged on mattresses on the earth floor, surrounded by cinderblocks, shoes and camping stoves.

New families were still arriving outside, some pulling kitchen supplies, food and bags of clothes from pickup trucks.

But Zarifa Hussein and her children had no time to pack belongings.

"We didn't bring anything with us. We fled our house barefoot and spent the night in a bomb shelter," said Ms Hussein, who is pregnant.

"In the morning, we went to get our things and found the house demolished."

Another woman got down from the pickup truck angrily waving a pointed sliver of metal.

"As we fled Jandairis, this flew behind us," she said. "May it strike them [the attackers] right between the eyes."

In Afrin's main hospital, Arze Sido sat nervously by a hospital bed, where her adult son lay motionless, hooked to an intravenous drip.

Early this week, Ms Sido and her wounded son, two young daughters and mother-in-law escaped the border town of Midan Akbas and headed south-east to stay with relatives in Afrin.

"I was so scared for my daughters," she said.

"My son wanted to grab bread but I told him, come, there's shelling. As he was getting it, the Turkish army shelled us. We had to pull him out and bring him to the hospital. He's been here for more than three days now."

Turkey has pressed its offensive despite global calls for de-escalation.

Jumaa Hassan Hassoun, a 56-year-old who fled from Jandairis, said it was time world powers stepped in.

"I left with my children: seven daughters, two boys, and my wife," he said.

"We want our voices to reach the whole world - save us from this!"