Turkish Forces Target Hill in Syria

Turkish Forces Target Hill in Syria

KILIS, Turkey (AP) -- Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters captured a strategic hill in northwestern Syria on Sunday as their offensive to root out Kurdish fighters enters its second week, Turkey's military and Syrian war monitor reported.

Associated Press reporters in the Turkish border town of Kilis heard constant shelling and clashes as Turkish aircraft whizzed above and plumes of smoke rose in the distance.

The Kurdish militia and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported intense fighting on the Bursayah hill, which separates the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin from the Turkey-controlled town of Azaz. The clashes followed intense bombing in the area.

The Turkey-backed forces have been trying to capture the hill since the start of their offensive on Jan. 20, but have been met with stiff resistance. The Kurdish militia known as the People's Defense Units, or YPG, said Turkey sent reinforcements to the area following intense airstrikes.

Rami Abdurrahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Turkish troops briefly seized the hill at the start of the campaign but lost it to Kurdish fighters hours later. The strategic hill grants Turkey-backed forces an elevated area that overlooks the northeast of Afrin.

Later on Sunday, the Turkish military in a statement that Turkish soldiers and allied Syrian opposition fighters captured the hill, assisted by airstrikes, attack helicopters, armed drones and howitzers. Abdurrahman said the Turkish troops seized control of the large hill, killing nearly a dozen Kurdish fighters.

Abdurrahman said airstrikes landed near Afrin's main dam for the second time since the offensive began. There were no immediate reports of damage to the 17 April Dam, which provides water and electricity to the enclave, home to hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom have fled from other parts of Syria.

The Observatory said it has documented the deaths of at least 46 civilians, including 13 children, and three people from the same displace family killed in an airstrike in southwestern Afrin Sunday. The Observatory said 66 YPG fighters and 69 Turkey-backed Syrian fighters were also killed in the offensive. Turkey says five of its soldiers and 15 allied fighters have been killed.

But the numbers may rise. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted that the YPG may be holding Turkish soldiers captive, saying Turkey was taking steps to bring them back. He spoke to one missing soldier's wife Saturday evening, who asked the president to return her husband "alive or martyred."

The Observatory said a number of Turkish soldiers remain missing.

On Sunday, the Observatory and the Kurdish militia said an ancient temple in Afrin was badly damaged from Turkish airstrikes that struck its courtyard late Friday.

Images showed stones piled up in the open court of the temple of Ain Dara, an Iron Age Syro-Hittite temple, which dates back somewhere between the 10th and 8th century B.C. The temple, which features sculptures of lions and sphinxes and "the giant footsteps of the Gods," was noted for its structural similarities to Solomon's temple as described in the Bible. The images from the area, which is about 6 kilometers (nearly 4 miles) from Afrin town, showed that none of the statutes were still intact, with rubble and metal scraps strewn across the temple's floor.

The extent of the damage to the temple could not be independently assessed but the Observatory said it was badly damaged. The Turkish military said it was looking into reports of the destruction.

Erdogan again vowed to expand the operation eastward, toward the town of Manbij.

"The terrorists in Afrin and Manbij cannot run from the painful end that awaits them," he said in a speech on Sunday to party members in Corum province in northern Turkey. The crowd responded by chanting: "Hit, hit! Let it reverberate and let (U.S. President Donald) Trump hear."

Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist group because of its links to Kurdish insurgents fighting in Turkey. The YPG also forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed militia that drove the Islamic State group from much of northern and eastern Syria.

The United States has expressed concerns about the Turkish campaign, fearing it could distract from efforts to defeat IS and ensure the extremists do not regroup.

On Sunday, dozens of people gathered near the Kilis border crossing, chanting "God is great" and waving Turkish flags. One protester carried a flag with Erdogan's picture. Public displays of support for the offensive have been widespread in Turkey, while critics have been detained.