Turkey launches push into Syria, people flee as air raids, artillery hit border town

Turkey launches push into Syria, people flee as air raids, artillery hit border town
By Mert Ozkan

AKCAKALE, Turkey (Reuters) – Turkey launched a military operation against Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria on Wednesday just days after U.S. troops pulled back from the area, with air strikes and artillery hitting YPG militia positions around the border town of Ras al Ain.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, announcing the start of the action, said the aim was to eliminate what he called a “terror corridor” on Turkey’s southern border.

Turkey had been poised to enter northeast Syria since U.S. troops, who have been fighting with Kurdish-led forces against Islamic State, started to leave in an abrupt policy shift by U.S. President Donald Trump. The withdrawal was criticized in Washington as a betrayal of America’s Kurdish allies.

A Turkish security source told Reuters the military operation into Syria had begun with air strikes.

Turkish howitzers also started hitting bases and ammunition depots of the Kurdish YPG militia. The artillery strikes, which also targeted YPG gun and sniper positions, were aimed at sites far from residential areas, the source said.

A Reuters cameraman in the Turkish town of Akcakale saw several explosions across the border in the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, where a witness reported people fleeing en masse.

Large explosions also rocked Ras al Ain, just across the border across from the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar, a CNN Turk reporter said. The sound of planes could he heard above and smoke was rising from buildings in Ras al Ain, he said.

World powers fear the action could open a new chapter in Syria’s eight-year-old war and worsen regional turmoil. Ankara has said it intends to create a “safe zone” in order to return millions of refugees to Syrian soil.

Erdogan earlier told Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in a phone call that the operation would help peace and stability in Syria.

In the build-up to the expected offensive, Syria had said it was determined to confront any Turkish aggression by all legitimate means. It was also ready to embrace “prodigal sons”, it said, in an apparent reference to the Syrian Kurdish authorities who hold the northeast.

Turkey views Kurdish YPG fighters in northeast Syria as terrorists because of their ties to militants waging an insurgency inside Turkey. An influx of non-Kurdish Syrians would help it secure a buffer against its main security threat.

Amid deepening humanitarian concerns, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has urged all parties in northeast Syria to exercise maximum restraint and protect civilians.

Germany said Turkey’s action would lead to further instability and could strengthen Islamic State, while European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called on Ankara to halt the military operation.

Juncker said that the bloc would not fund Ankara’s plans in the region. “If the plan involves the creation of a so-called safe zone, don’t expect the EU to pay for any of it,” he told the EU parliament.


Kurdish-led forces have denounced the U.S. policy shift as a “stab in the back”. Trump denied he had abandoned the forces, the most capable U.S. partners in fighting Islamic State in Syria.

The Kurdish-led authority in northern Syria declared a state of “general mobilization” before the looming attack.

“We call on all our institutions, and our people in all their components, to head towards the border region with Turkey to fulfill their moral duty and show resistance in these sensitive, historic moments,” it said in a statement.

Erdogan’s communications director Fahrettin Altun said Turkey had no ambition in northeastern Syria except to neutralize the threat against Turkish citizens and to liberate the local people from what he called “the yoke of armed thugs”.

Turkey was taking over leadership of the fight against Islamic State in Syria, he said. YPG fighters could either defect or Ankara would have to “stop them from disrupting our counter-Islamic State efforts”, he wrote in a tweet and in a column in the Washington Post.

Turkey’s Demiroren news agency said Syrian rebels had traveled from northwest Syria to Turkey in preparation for the incursion. They will be based in Ceylanpinar, with 14,000 of them gradually joining the offensive.

“Strike them with an iron fist, make them taste the hell of your fires,” the National Army, the main Turkey-backed rebel force, told its fighters in a statement.


Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s strongest foreign ally, urged dialogue between Damascus and Syria’s Kurds on solving issues in northeast Syria including border security.

“We will do our best to support the start of such substantive talks,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters during a visit to Kazakhstan.

Another Assad ally, Iran, urged Turkey to show restraint and avoid military action in northern Syria, although it said Turkey was “rightfully worried” about its southern border.

On Monday, Erdogan said U.S. troops started to pull back after a call he had with Trump, adding that talks between Turkish and U.S. officials on the matter would go on.

Trump’s decision to pull back troops has rattled allies, including France and Britain, two of Washington’s main partners in the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Istanbul, Tom Perry in Beirut, Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay in Ankara, Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by William Maclean and Angus MacSwan)

Christianity grows in Syrian town once besieged by Islamic State

Children stand together inside a damaged house in Kobani, Syria April 3, 2019. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

By John Davison

KOBANI, Syria (Reuters) – A community of Syrians who converted to Christianity from Islam is growing in Kobani, a town besieged by Islamic State for months, and where the tide turned against the militants four years ago.

The converts say the experience of war and the onslaught of a group claiming to fight for Islam pushed them towards their new faith. After a number of families converted, the Syrian-Turkish border town’s first evangelical church opened last year.

Islamic State militants were beaten back by U.S. air strikes and Kurdish fighters at Kobani in early 2015, in a reversal of fortune after taking over swaths of Iraq and Syria. After years of fighting, U.S.-backed forces fully ended the group’s control over populated territory last month.

Though Islamic State’s ultra radical interpretation of Sunni Islam has been repudiated by the Islamic mainstream, the legacy of its violence has affected perceptions of faith.

Many in the mostly Kurdish areas of northern Syria, whose urban centers are often secular, say agnosticism has strengthened and in the case of Kobani, Christianity.

Christianity is one of the region’s minority faiths that was persecuted by Islamic State.

Critics view the new converts with suspicion, accusing them of seeking personal gain such as financial help from Christian organizations working in the region, jobs and enhanced prospects of emigration to European countries.

The newly-converted Christians of Kobani deny those accusations. They say their conversion was a matter of faith.

“After the war with Islamic State people were looking for the right path, and distancing themselves from Islam,” said Omar Firas, the founder of Kobani’s evangelical church. “People were scared and felt lost.”

Firas works for a Christian aid group at a nearby camp for displaced people that helped set up the church.

He said around 20 families, or around 80 to 100 people, in Kobani now worship there. They have not changed their names.

“We meet on Tuesdays and hold a service on Fridays. It is open to anyone who wants to join,” he said.

The church’s current pastor, Zani Bakr, 34, arrived last year from Afrin, a town in northern Syria. He converted in 2007.

“This was painted by IS as a religious conflict, using religious slogans. Because of this a lot of Kurds lost trust in religion generally, not just Islam,” he said.

Many became atheist or agnostic. “But many others became Christian. Scores here and more in Afrin.”

A woman reacts at a grave of her daughter, an SDF fighter killed during fightings with Islamic State militants, at a cemetery in Kobani, Syria April 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

A woman reacts at a grave of her daughter, an SDF fighter killed during fightings with Islamic State militants, at a cemetery in Kobani, Syria April 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho


One man, who lost an arm in an explosion in Kobani and fled to Turkey for medical treatment, said he met Kurdish and Turkish converts there and eventually decided to join them.

“They seemed happy and all talked about love. That’s when I decided to follow Jesus’s teachings,” Maxim Ahmed, 22, said, adding that several friends and family were now interested in coming to the new church.

Some in Kobani reject the growing Christian presence. They say Western Christian aid groups and missionaries have exploited the chaos and trauma of war to convert people and that local newcomers to the religion see an opportunity for personal gain.

“Many people think that they are somehow benefitting from this, maybe for material gain or because of the perception that Christians who seek asylum abroad get preferential treatment,” said Salih Naasan, a real estate worker and former Arabic teacher.

Thousands of Christians have fled the region over decades of sectarian strife. From Syria they have often headed for Lebanon and European countries.

U.S. President Donald Trump pledged to help minorities fleeing the region when he imposed a travel ban on Muslims in 2016, but many Christians were denied asylum.

“It might be a reaction to Daesh (Islamic State) but I don’t see the positives. It just adds another religious and sectarian dimension which in a community like this will lead to tension,” said Naasan, a practicing Muslim.

Naasan like the vast majority of Muslims rejects Islamic State’s narrow and brutal interpretation of Islam. The group enslaved and killed thousands of people from all faiths, reserving particular brutality for minorities such as the Yazidis of northern Iraq.

Most Christians preferred not to give their names or be interviewed, saying they fear reaction from conservative sectors of society.

The population of Kobani and its surroundings has neared its original 200,000 after people returned, although only 40,000 live in the town itself, much of which lies in ruins.

(Editing by Tom Perry and Alexandra Hudson)

‘Not enough room’: migrant flows strain Mexican border shelters

Migrants, part of a caravan traveling from Central America en route to the United States, wait to hitchhike after resting in a makeshift camp in Juan Rodriguez Clara, Mexico, November 13, 2018. Picture taken November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

By Lizbeth Diaz

TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – The arrival in the Mexican border city of Tijuana of the first few hundred travelers from migrant caravans is stretching to the limit shelters already overflowing with other people, and sparking signs of friction among the population.

Lugging heavy bundles and small children, an unprecedented caravan of thousands of mostly Honduran migrants set off for the United States in mid-October, many of them fleeing violence and poverty at home. Two other copycat groups of mainly El Salvadorans followed behind.

U.S. President Donald Trump has declared the caravans an unwelcome “invasion,” and threatened to close down the Mexico-U.S. border to keep them out, ordering some 7,000 troops to reinforce the frontier, including in Tijuana with barbed wire.

It has not stopped people trying to reach the border, including those from the caravans, others traveling from Central America independently, and Mexicans fleeing violence in cartel-plagued states.

Jose Maria Garcia, director of the Juventud 2000 migrant shelter, said he had been warning authorities since the Honduran caravan set out that migrant refuges were already operating at capacity in the border cities of Tijuana and Mexicali.

“People are still arriving, but we’re not prepared to receive them,” Garcia told Reuters. He said he believes the incoming caravans would be the largest number of migrants to arrive in the city in such a short time in recent memory.

The buildup in Tijuana will be a test of tougher asylum rules introduced by Trump, which some experts believe will push more people to try to cross illegally. Few of the 20 migrants interviewed by Reuters were aware of the new rules.

Tijuana has a history of absorbing visitors, including Chinese immigrants in the 19th century, a large American population and Haitians who settled in the city south of San Diego in 2016 after failing to cross the U.S. border.

As many as 1,000 people who broke away from the first caravan have reached Tijuana in the last few days, with a similar number expected later this week. Thousands more could soon follow as the main body of the caravans arrive.

Almost 3,000 people – many of them Mexicans – are now waiting in migrant shelters to request asylum alongside hundreds of Central Americans, said Cesar Palencia, head of the Tijuana city government’s migrant outreach team.

U.S. border officials process about 75 to 100 asylum claims a day, so it could be a month before new arrivals are seen, said Pedro Rios, of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group that works with migrants.

Of the 14 migrant shelters on the 2,000-mile (3,200 km)Mexico-U.S. border, 10 are totally overcrowded, Palencia said. Dozens of arrivals from the caravan camped on the beach on Tuesday night.

“People have received us kindly, but they say there’s not enough room for everyone, so we decided to spend the night on the beach,” said a Honduran woman in Tijuana as she washed her face in a public bathroom, asking to remain anonymous.

“It was a terrible night for me and my children.”

The bulk of the group that formed after the Honduran caravan began entering Mexico over three weeks ago is now moving up the Pacific northwest coast through the state of Sinaloa, made up of between 4,000 and 5,000 people, authorities say.


The Mexican government has urged the migrants to register for asylum in Mexico, or risk deportation. The incoming government of President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has vowed to provide jobs and visas to the Central Americans.

That message has not been popular with all Mexicans, many of whom fear for their own futures.

“We also need help,” said Olga Cruz from the western state of Michoacan, who had come to Tijuana to seek asylum in the United States with her three children.

“Not a day goes by (in Michoacan) without somebody being killed, and I don’t want my children growing up like this,” she said. “But if the government only focuses on helping (Central Americans) they leave nothing for us,” she added.

On Monday, a group of about 80 mainly LGBT people who split from the migrant caravan moved into a building in a wealthy area of Tijuana. Residents shouted at them to leave and demanded that local authorities take steps to eject them.

(Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Dave Graham and Bill Berkrot)

Fairy tales overcome nightmares at South Korea’s militarized border town

Visitors are seen at a shopping mall near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea, July 16, 2017. Picture taken on July 16, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Hyunjoo Jin and Haejin Choi

SEOUL (Reuters) – A half-hour’s drive north of Seoul, along a highway lined with barbed wire, lie two shopping malls the size of several football stadiums, a stone’s throw from the world’s most militarized border.

The malls are in the city of Paju, gateway to the U.N. truce village of Panmunjom, where military officers from the combatants of the 1950-53 Korean war discuss armistice matters — when the two sides are on speaking terms, which they aren’t these days.

“Fairy tales come true in Paju”, is the advertising lure from the Korean Tourism Board. But it was nightmares that were all too true here during the Korean war, when Paju featured some of its fiercest battles. Paju is home to the country’s only “enemy’s cemetery”, where the remains of Chinese and North Korean soldiers are buried.

That’s all but forgotten history now. On the rooftop of the Lotte Premium Outlet, children and their parents can view North Korea across the Imjin River through binoculars. The mall also features a merry-go-round, cinema, and a mini-train.

At Shinsegae Paju Premium Outlet, about a dozen children jump and scream around a fountain inside the mall on a sizzling, July summer day. Just a couple miles away is a village modeled after France’s tourism center of Provence, where restaurants, bakeries and clothing shops are decorated like a children’s playbook.

Elsewhere in Paju, kids carved wood to make Pinocchio dolls at a museum, while adults tasted wine made of meoru, a Korean wild grape, at a farm.

Paju, indeed, shows little signs of the tensions that have arisen since North Korea marked the U.S. July 4th holiday with a successful launch of what it said was an intercontinental ballistic missile. The missile test prompted the United States and South Korea this month to conduct air force bomber exercises in the skies near here.


But at Paju’s Provence Village, Kim Ki-deok, a 41-year-old office worker from south of Seoul and father of a 4-year-old boy, said he doesn’t feel any more danger from being close to the border.

“If North Korea really wants, they can shoot missiles far away,” said Kim. “I feel refreshed and would like to come here again.”

The sense of insouciance can even be seen at the U.S. military’s Camp Bonifas on the outskirts of town, home to a three-hole golf course that Sports Illustrated once called the “world most dangerous golf course” because of the Korean War vintage land mines littering the area.

The Korean War, in which the United States fought alongside South Korea and China with the North, ended in a truce that has yet to be replaced by a peace agreement and has left the two sides technically at war.

It means South Koreans have long grown accustomed to living in a doomsday scenario, one that includes up to 10,000 artillery guns pointed toward the South and capable at any moment, in the words of North Korea’s propaganda machine, of turning Seoul into a “sea of fire” and a “pile of ashes.”

For 30-year-old Park Chol-min, it’s nothing more than empty threats.

“It’s just a show or performance. I think North Korea has a lot more to lose than to gain by turning Seoul into a sea of fire,” said the video game producer from Seoul, visiting the Shinsegae mall with his girlfriend to buy her a birthday gift.


Paju stepped up North Korea-related tourism in the 2000s, when liberal governments launched a “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with North Korea. Foreigners and locals flocked to Panmunjom to see stony-faced North Korean soldiers on guard and an underground tunnel built by the North, and to Imjingak, which houses the Bridge of Freedom, where prisoners of war were traded at the end of the war.

The tourism push took a huge leap late in 2011, when two massive premium outlets run by South Korean retail giants Shinsegae and Lotte opened. More than 12 million visitors went to the two malls last year — more than Seoul’s population of 10 million.

It was not long after the malls opened, though, when North Korea dramatically stepped up the pace of missile and nuclear tests under Kim Jong Un, who took power in Pyongyang when his father Kim Jong-il died in December 2011.

“The tests have not dented visitor interest at all,” said a Paju city official in charge of tourism, who asked not to be named. “It has become just part of a daily life, although it is sad to say so.”

Normalizing the North Korean threat is part of a “defense mechanism” for South Koreans, says Kwak Keum-joo, a psychology professor at Seoul National University.

“I feel anxious about North Korea when I travel overseas. Once I return to Korea, I forget it,” Kwak said.

That’s not so easy for 74-year-old Woo Jong-il, who lives in a small village of Manu-ri, just south of the Imjin river that divides the two Koreas.

Woo built a bunker in his backyard, one of several residents in Manu-ri who did so in the early 1970s, when bullets fired from North Korea wounded several in his village and damaged a house next door.

“I don’t think this is obsolete even now,” he said, showing a visitor around a dark basement shelter just big enough to accommodate his seven family members.

“I feel anxious. How can I not be? We are at the front so we can be victims. If the relationship with the North worsens anytime, this bunker makes me feel safe.”

(Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang,; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Bill Tarrant)