Al-Bab offensive intensifies as Syrian rebels prepare final offensive
Three civilians were killed overnight in the town of al-Bab, northern Syria, late on Friday as clashes between the Islamic State group and a Turkish-backed Syrian rebel force intensifies, local sources have told The New Arab.
The mounting civilian death toll comes as the Free Syrian Army backed by Turkish firepower, continue their push into north-west Syria.
UK-based monitoring organisation the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights places the civilian death toll at more than 110 people during the past ten days of the Ankara-backed Operation Euphrates Shield.
"In the past 48 hours, Turkish air strikes and shelling have killed 45 civilians, including 18 children and 14 women," Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP on Friday.
Turkish authorities contend that the operation has successfully targeted IS positions in al-Bab with warplanes and artillery, and that the the army is now engaged in a "clean-up" operation against IS fighters.
"[IS] seeks to install itself in civilian and public buildings and use civilians as human shields," a rebel spokesman said on Friday.
"They use suicide attacks and they move about through basements and tunnels... they infiltrate in-between civilians fleeing the military operations to try and penetrate behind the lines of the rebel factions."
Locals told The New Arab that IS is planting explosives and landmines, to prevent civilians from leaving the town as Turkish-backed forces advance.
The rebel advance comes in the context of anxiety in Ankara that Kurdish forces are too influential in strategic areas of north Syria.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that Turkish forces will not remain in the area once IS is defeated, but Turkey would be worries by the establishment of a Syrian-Kurdish canton on its border.
Al-Bab has been under IS control since 2014, when the group seized large swathes of territory in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, proclaiming its self-described "caliphate".
Turkey began military operations in Syria in August, targeting both IS militants as well as Kurdish fighters.
Initially its forces and allied Syrian rebel factions advanced quickly, but they stalled around al-Bab in December.
The town is also a key target for Syrian regime forces, who had been racing to reach al-Bab from the south.
Since rival regime forces, including the elite Tiger Forces, began an assault on villages to the south of al-Bab last month - which saw the town completely encircled - it has led to Ankara to intensify its operations.
The wider Syrian conflict that drew in Turkey had begun when the Baath regime, in power since 1963 and led by the Assad family, responded with military force to peaceful protests during the Arab Spring wave of uprisings.
According to independent monitors, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed in the war, mostly by the regime and its powerful allies, and millions have been displaced both inside and outside of Syria.
The brutal tactics pursued mainly by the regime, have included the use of chemical weapons, sieges, mass executions and torture against civilians have led to war crimes investigations.