Turkish strikes kill Kurdish fighters in Syria, Iraq

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Beirut (AFP) – Turkish warplanes killed more than 20 Kurdish fighters Tuesday in strikes in Syria and Iraq, where the Kurds are key players in the battle against the Islamic State group.

The deadliest bombardment was on the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), who are leading the US-backed fight for the important IS-held town of Tabqa in northern Syria. 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said Turkish planes carried out “dozens of simultaneous air strikes” on YPG positions in northeastern Hasakeh province overnight, including a media centre.

Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said the strikes killed 18 people, one of the highest death tolls from Turkish air raids on Kurdish militia.

“Three of them are media officials and 15 of them are YPG fighters,” Abdel Rahman said.

In a statement distributed to journalists, the YPG confirmed the Turkish bombardment and said there were casualties but did not give a toll.

“Turkish planes carried out a broad offensive on a YPG base that houses media and communication centres and some military installations,” the statement said.

Ankara has bombed the YPG across swathes of northern Syria for months, calling it a “terrorist” group because of its ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) based in southeastern Turkey.  

It has also targeted positions controlled by PKK-affiliated groups in northern Iraq. 

– Turkey vows to ‘destroy havens’ –

Turkey’s army said it launched air strikes on northeastern Syria and northern Iraq on Tuesday “in order to destroy terrorist havens targeting our country”. 

“The operations will continue to be carried out from now with the same determination until the very last terrorist is neutralised,” the army said.

While the air raids on Syria appeared to hit their intended target, the bombardment in Iraq killed members of Kurdish security forces that are typically allied with Ankara.

“Six people were martyred, five from the peshmerga and the sixth from asayish,” Lieutenant General Jabbar Yawar, secretary general of the peshmerga ministry in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish government, told AFP.

“Nine others were also wounded by the air strike on the Sinjar mountain,” he said, in reference to a northwestern region of Iraq which is the main hub of the Yazidi minority.

The peshmerga are the Kurdish Regional Government’s armed forces and the asayish its intelligence service.

Yawar and other officials said the overnight strike apparently targeted a Yazidi militia allied with the PKK. 

The peshmerga denounced the strike as “unacceptable” but focused blame on PKK-affiliated groups.

“These problems and tensions are all because of the PKK’s presence,” it said, accusing the PKK and its affiliates of refusing to withdraw from the Sinjar area.

IS is facing multiple offensives across Syria and Iraq — often led by governments or forces that are otherwise bitterly opposed to each other.

Turkey launched an unprecedented cross-border operation into Syria in August to fight IS and to keep the YPG in check. 

– Fighting for IS-held Tabqa –

The YPG makes up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters taking on IS jihadists in Syria. 

After chipping away at IS territory across the country’s north, the SDF is now locked in clashes against the jihadists inside Tabqa, a key town on the Euphrates River. 

Fighting continued inside the town’s south and west on Tuesday, backed by heavy US-led coalition air strikes overnight, according to the Observatory. 

The SDF entered the town on Monday as part of their flagship offensive for Raqa, the Syrian heart of the jihadists’ self-styled “caliphate” since 2014.

More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria’s six-year conflict, which the World Health Organization has called the most dangerous place for health workers. 

Air strikes on a rebel-held village in northwestern Syria early Tuesday killed 12 people and put a nearby field clinic out of service, according to the Observatory. 

The dead, which included at least two rebel fighters and five civilians, were killed in a first round of raids on the village of Duwayleh in Idlib province. 

“As they were bringing wounded people to the clinic in nearby Kafr Takharim, new air strikes hit near the facility,” Abdel Rahman said. 

An AFP correspondent saw a bloodied stretcher and a wheelchair propped up on a building whose entrance was littered with rubble. 

Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters, shown here standing on a tank, have been battling the Islamic State group around Mosul
Copyright AFP SAFIN HAMED
Tabqa Dam
Copyright AFP Jonathan JACOBSEN
Fighters with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters, are battling the Islamic State group in northern Syria including for control of the Tabqa dam
Copyright AFP DELIL SOULEIMAN
Wrecked vehicles are seen amidst debris following air strikes on the rebel-held village of Kafr Tekharim in northwest Syria on April 25, 2017
Copyright AFP Omar haj kadour