Turkey takes 'total control' of Syria's Afrin, says state media

Turkish forces have ousted the Kurdish YPG militia from the Syrian enclave of Afrin, a week after they captured the main town that bears the same name. The military is now sweeping for mines to allow residents to return.

The Turkish military and its Syrian rebel allies have taken "complete control" of the Syrian enclave of Afrin in northern Syria, Turkish state media reported on Saturday.

Last Sunday, Turkish-backed forces seized the main town that is also called Afrin without much resistance from the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the People's Protection Units, or YPG.

Anadolu news agency said the Turkish military was now sweeping for mines and explosives to allow Afrin's resident's to return. 

Turkey launched a ground and air offensive in January against the YPG that controlled Afrin. Turkey considers the YPG a terror group and an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) rebels, which is waging an insurgency within its own borders. Cooperating with YPG, however, forms an integral part of the US-led fight against "Islamic State."

Read more: Turkey's military offensive against Kurdish-held Afrin: What you need to know

The offensive has displaced more than 200,000 people from their homes, according to Syrian Kurdish officials and the country's state media, prompting the EU and United States to issue statements of "concern" over the humanitarian situation.

Read more: Who are the Kurds?

Turkey says it will expand its offensive against the YPG further east of Afrin and even into northern Iraq, a region that Ankara describes as a "terror corridor."

ap/ng (AP, dpa)

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Kurds protest Turkey's Afrin offensive during Newroz celebrations

Newroz marked with protest

Newroz, the Kurdish and Persian New Year, is an ancient festival that marks the Spring Equinox. Though normally a time for celebration, this year’s festivities were marked with anger and protest over the Turkish government's ongoing military operations in Afrin, Syria, where Ankara-backed militias have been conducting an offensive on the enclave of Kurdish militants since January 20, 2018.

Kurds protest Turkey's Afrin offensive during Newroz celebrations

Crowd filled with pride, frustration

This year's festival came just days after Turkish-backed militias took the city of Afrin, scoring a major victory against Kurdish militants who have largely been pushed out of northwestern Syria. In response, attendees of Newroz celebrations in Diyarbakir, Turkey's largest Kurdish-majority city, chanted pro-Kurdish slogans such as "Long live the Afrin resistance."

Kurds protest Turkey's Afrin offensive during Newroz celebrations

'This is not just a celebration, it’s resistance'

"There's never been an easy time to celebrate Newroz, but the people who come here are sending a message," said Aynur Asan, member of the Kurdish-led Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) council. "It's a salute to liberated Kurdish areas, but it's also a message to those who have given up on Kurds. This is not just a celebration, it's resistance."

Kurds protest Turkey's Afrin offensive during Newroz celebrations

'Barbarism and looting'

Pervin Buldan, the new HDP co-chair, addressed the crowd in Diyarbakir with criticism of Turkey's Operation in Afrin. "They did not bring anything to Afrin other than barbarism and looting," she said. "They attacked Afrin because of their intolerance to the gains of the Kurds." She went on to say Ankara could not break the bond between Kurds in Turkey and Syria.

Kurds protest Turkey's Afrin offensive during Newroz celebrations

Afrin's rightful owners

Throughout the Afrin offensive, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said the area would be liberated from Kurdish terrorists and returned to its rightful owners. In response, Hisyar Ozsoy, deputy chair of the HDP's foreign affairs, said: "Afrin belongs to the people of Afrin, the majority of whom are Kurdish … what Erdogan is trying to do is ethnic engineering."

Kurds protest Turkey's Afrin offensive during Newroz celebrations

Criticism of EU inaction

"When we go to the West, we see schools and factories. When you come here, what do you see other than prisons and police and tanks?" asked a member of the Peace Mothers, a group of women who've lost children in ongoing conflicts, during a meeting with EU delegates prior to Newroz. "You have not put Erdogan on trial."

Kurds protest Turkey's Afrin offensive during Newroz celebrations

Ongoing state of emergency

Wednesday's Newroz celebration-turned-protest was a rare display of dissent in Turkey, where political gatherings have been banned under a state of emergency that has been in effect since the failed coup attempt in July 2016. In addition, Diyarbakir was under round-the-clock curfew during military operations, in which Turkish forces eradicated Kurdish militants from the city center.

Kurds protest Turkey's Afrin offensive during Newroz celebrations

Dwindling attendance

Following urban warfare that gripped much of Diyarbakir's city center between 2015 and 2016, many of the city's citizens have shied away from public events such as Newroz. Pictured above, members of local Kurdish groups distribute invitations to Newroz in the Diyarbakir's historic center in an effort to encourage people to join the festivities.

Kurds protest Turkey's Afrin offensive during Newroz celebrations

'No matter how much pressure they face'

Selma Atabey, a representative for the Health and Social Service Workers Union (SES), said more than 4,300 members of her union lost their jobs in Turkey's post-coup crackdown, but many still came out for the festivities. "Newroz is a time when Kurds can express their existence here. No matter how much pressure they face, they will celebrate Newroz," she said.

Kurds protest Turkey's Afrin offensive during Newroz celebrations

Festivities cut short

The gathering in Diyarbakir ended abruptly on Wednesday, after younger attendees jumped security fences and rushed the stage. Police called for the celebrations to be cut short, but lingering groups continued to play drums and dance. "They always stop us early, but we enjoy ourselves as much as we can," said Nurettin, a male who gave only his first name.