Turkey ramps up Kurdish-held Afrin assault
The development, which could redraw the map of northern Syria as the conflict enters its eighth year, came as Russian-backed regime forces continued to pound shrinking rebel pockets in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, killing 31 civilians.
Ten civilians were killed in Afrin city, the heart of a Kurdish-majority enclave, as Turkish forces continued their military campaign dubbed Operation Olive Branch.
Afrin's encirclement "will have been completed by the evening", a Turkish presidency source said on Wednesday, toning down an earlier statement made by President Recept Tayyip Erdogan saying it would fall by evening.
The military campaign, launched on 20 January, sought to oust the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) from the Afrin region of northern Syria.
Washington views the YPG as a key ally in the battle against the Islamic State group.
Turkey sees the Kurdish militia YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK group is designated as a terrorist group by Turkey, the US and EU.
Before the retraction, Erdogan had told supporters in Ankara he hoped, "Afrin will, God willing, have completely fallen by the evening", a claim laughed off by a top official in the YPG.
"It sounds like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is daydreaming when he says Afrin will fall tonight," Redur Khalil told AFP.
Continued fighting in Syria's northern provinces has spurred new waves of immigration across the border into Turkey, consisting of tens of thousands of families, according to aid organisations.
"More than 2,000 civilians have arrived in the area of Nubul," controlled by pro-regime forces, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Monday.
Afrin is home to around 350,000 people.
Reports that Turkish border forces have been shooting indiscriminately at fleeing Syrians led to HRW to issue an urgent plea to Turkey to end its use of "lethal force" against Syrian refugees, and to stop forcibly returning them back to the unsafe conditions from which they fled.
"Conditions in Syria are not safe for refugee returns," HRW's deputy Middle East director Lama Fakih said.
"With hostilities in Afrin contributing to the growing displacement crisis in the country, Turkey should allow the thousands of desperate Syrians seeking refuge to cross the border," Fakih added.
Turkish and allied forces have almost encircled Afrin city, from which thousands started fleeing when it became apparent Ankara's goal was nothing short of full capture.
On Wednesday, Turkish bombing raids killed 10 fighters loyal to the regime, which last month deployed pro-government forces after the Kurds asked for help.
"The air strikes targeted a checkpoint on the only road leading from Afrin to regime-controlled territory to the southeast," said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Shells rained down on Afrin city on Wednesday, killing 10 civilians including four children.
Earlier, dozens of desperate residents were seen lining up outside a bakery distributing free bread.
"Regardless of who will win in the end, as soon as the battle for this small pocket begins, it will mean a massacre against civilians," said YPG media adviser Rezan Hedo.
The Observatory said on Wednesday that Turkey-led forces controlled 70 percent of the wider Kurdish enclave, after seizing several villages.