People flee in the northeast of Afrin, Syria, March 15 2018. Picture: REUTERS
People flee in the northeast of Afrin, Syria, March 15 2018. Picture: REUTERS

Afrin, Syria — Turkey’s flag was flying in Syria’s Afrin on Sunday after Turkish troops and Ankara-backed rebels chased out Kurdish militia forces to seize control of the northern city.

In a major victory for Ankara’s two-month operation against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria, Turkish-led forces pushed into Afrin apparently unopposed, taking up positions across the city.

The advance came as Syria’s civil war entered its eighth year, with heavy fighting on two fronts: around Afrin and in the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.

Hundreds have been killed and thousands forced from their homes by the ferocious assault in Ghouta, where Russian-backed forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are battling to retake the last rebel enclave outside the capital.

In Afrin, media correspondents saw Turkish forces and their Syrian allies in all areas of the city after they made a lightning advance inside on Sunday.

Rebels fanned out across the city, giving victory signs and taking pictures with Turkish tanks parked outside official buildings. The flags of Turkey and Syrian rebel groups were raised in the city and a statue of Kurdish hero Kawa, a symbol of resistance against oppressors, was torn down.

Civilians were seen fleeing the city and plumes of smoke rose into the sky as mines exploded. After pro-Ankara fighters all but surrounded the city in recent days, about 250,000 civilians fled southwards to territory still held by the YPG or controlled by the Syrian regime.

'Terrorism corridor'

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkey-backed fighters had taken control of the city centre at 8.30am. Erdogan said a "large number" of Kurdish fighters had "fled with their tails between their legs". The Turkish leader has said the operation could move on to other Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria.

"Our work is not finished, but terrorism is finished in Afrin," Turkish government spokesman Bekir Bozdag said on Twitter. "Their project of creating a terrorism corridor and a terrorist state has been thwarted."

Residents said it appeared that YPG units had withdrawn from the city without a fight. Officials with the Kurdish militia could not immediately be reached for comment.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on sources on the ground, says more than 280 civilians have been killed since the campaign began on January 20 — including 16 at a hospital on Friday. Ankara has denied the reports, including of Friday’s hospital strike, and said it takes the "utmost care" to avoid civilian casualties.

The Britain-based monitor said more than 400 pro-Ankara rebels had been killed. The Turkish military says 46 Turkish soldiers have died.

Turkey sees the YPG as a "terrorist" offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state. But the Kurdish militia has also formed the backbone of a US-backed alliance that successfully expelled Islamic State from large parts of Syria.