Turkish court keeps U.S. pastor in jail; Trump calls on Erdogan to act

A Turkish soldier stands guard in front of the Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

By Ezgi Erkoyun

ALIAGA, Turkey (Reuters) – A Turkish court decided on Wednesday to keep an American pastor in jail, dashing hopes that he could be released during his trial on terrorism and spying charges, a case that has deepened a rift with NATO ally Washington.

Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was indicted on charges of helping the group that Ankara blames for a failed 2016 coup against President Tayyip Erdogan, as well as supporting outlawed PKK Kurdish militants.

Brunson, who denies the charges, faces up to 35 years in jail if found guilty.

“It is really hard to stay in jail and be separated from my wife and children,” Brunson, wearing a black suit and a white shirt, told the court in Turkish.

“There is no concrete evidence against me. The disciples of Jesus suffered in his name, now it is my turn. I am an innocent man on all these charges. I reject them. I know why I am here. I am here to suffer in Jesus’s name.”

U.S. President Donald Trump late on Wednesday said in a tweet that Erdogan “should do something to free this wonderful Christian husband and father,” saying that Brunson has “been held hostage far too long.”

The U.S. Senate passed a bill last month including a measure that prohibits Turkey from buying F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets because of Brunson’s imprisonment and Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system.

The U.S. envoy to Turkey said he was “disappointed” by the ruling of the court in the Aegean province of Izmir, where Brunson had been living.

“Our government is deeply concerned about his status and the status of other American citizens and Turkish local employees of the U.S. diplomatic mission who have been detained under state of emergency rules,” Charge d’Affaires Philip Kosnett told reporters outside the courtroom.

“We have great respect for both Turkey’s traditional role as a haven for people of faiths and Turkey’s legal traditions,” he said. “We believe this case is out of step with these traditions.”

NEW WITNESSES

Erdogan has previously linked Brunson’s fate to that of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Muslim cleric who Turkey accuses of masterminding the failed coup. Gulen denies any involvement in the coup, in which at least 250 people were killed.

The spokesman of Turkey’s ruling AK Party, Mahir Unal, said that just as Washington had responded repeatedly to Ankara’s requests for Gulen’s extradition by saying it was a matter for the U.S. courts, so Brunson’s fate was a judicial matter.

Brunson was pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church, serving a small Protestant congregation in Turkey’s third-largest city, south of the Aegean town of Aliaga where he is now on trial.

His lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt had raised hopes that Brunson could be released as the prosecution witnesses finish testifying.

But Halavurt said on Wednesday the prosecution has added the testimony of two new anonymous witnesses to the case and that the court would reconvene on Oct. 12 to hear them and view new evidence.

Turkey’s lira weakened against the dollar immediately after the ruling, reflecting investor worries about tensions with the United States.

Brunson’s trial is one of several legal cases that have raised tensions between Washington and Ankara. A U.S. judge sentenced a Turkish bank executive in May to 32 months in prison for helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions, while two locally employed U.S. consulate staff in Turkey have been detained.

The two NATO allies are also at odds over U.S. policy in Syria, where Washington’s ally in the fight against Islamic State is a Kurdish militia that Turkey says is an extension of the PKK, which has waged a three-decade insurgency in southeast Turkey.

In a statement late on Wednesday, four Republican U.S. senators called for the immediate release of Brunson and other U.S. citizens being held in Turkey, warning of legislative reprisals otherwise.

“We encourage the Administration to use all the tools at their disposal to ensure the release of these innocent people before Congress is forced to press for even stricter legislative measures that will be difficult to unwind,” Senators Thom Tillis, Jeanne Shaheen, James Lankford, and Lindsey Graham said.

(Writing by Ezgi Erkoyun and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by John Stonestreet and Leslie Adler)

Human Rights Watch: Turkey-backed forces seizing property in Syria’s Afrin

Men walk through debris in the center of Afrin, Syria March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Turkey-backed rebels in northwest Syria’s Afrin have seized, looted and destroyed Kurdish civilians’ property after taking control of the region in March, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.

Turkey’s military and its Syrian rebel allies launched a cross-border operation into Syria earlier this year and drove fighters from the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia out of the town of Afrin and the surrounding area.

Ankara sees the YPG as a terrorist group and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency on Turkish soil. Turkey has threatened to drive the YPG from the entire length of its border.

The United Nations said 137,000 people were displaced by the Afrin offensive, another large population movement in the seven-year long Syrian conflict which has forced more than half of the country’s pre-war population from their homes.

Rights group HRW interviewed people who had been displaced from Afrin. They accuse Turkey-backed forces of moving their fighters and people from other parts of Syria into vacated homes and of taking over business premises without paying compensation.

One interviewee, Roni Seydo, left Afrin in March but was told by a friend that an armed group had taken over his house, painting the word “seized” on the outside wall.

He said his neighbors were questioned about his family and it possible links with the PKK.

Another former Afrin resident, photographer Ser Hussein, said one of his two studios was burned down and the other turned into a butchers shop.

“Those who made the decision to take over Afrin also took on the responsibility of ensuring that both the residents of Afrin, and people there who have been displaced elsewhere have basic shelter in a way that doesn’t infringe on either of those groups’ rights,” HRW’s acting emergencies director Priyanka Motaparthy said in a report.

“So far it seems that they are failing to do the right thing by either group.”

Under the laws of war, pillaging, or forcibly taking private property for personal use is prohibited and can constitute a war crime, HRW said. The laws of war also prohibit destruction of property not justified by military necessity.

HRW said owners should be compensated for the use and damage of their property and the rights of rights of owners and returnees should be guaranteed.

Reuters was not immediately able to reach the rebel groups for comment.

HRW said the Free Syrian Army rebel umbrella group issued a statement on March 9 inviting Afrin residents to submit complaints to the military headquarters in Azaz to claim their looted property.

HRW also said rebel faction Ahrar al-Sharqiyah issued a statement on April 20 denying responsibility for property violations and looting and saying it had arrested several people who may have been involved in such acts.

Turkish officials in March said they were looking into allegations of looting and property seizure and that they would ensure Afrin would be a safe place for residents to return to.

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Turkey will drain ‘terror swamp’ in Iraq’s Qandil, Erdogan says

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters during an election rally in Ankara, Turkey, June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey will drain the “terror swamp” in northern Iraq’s Qandil region, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday, a day after the military said it hit more than a dozen Kurdish militant targets in air strikes.

Turkey’s army has ramped up operations in northern Iraq, with the aim of destroying Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) bases in the Qandil mountains, where high-ranking members of the militant group are thought to be located. At the weekend the military said it destroyed 14 PKK targets in air strikes.

“We have started our operations on Qandil,” Erdogan said during an election rally in the central province of Nigde.

“Qandil will not be a threat, a source of terror for our people any more. We will drain the terror swamp in Qandil as we did in Afrin, Jarablus, Azaz, al-Bab.”

He was referring to areas in northern Syria where the Turkish army and its Syrian rebel allies have fought against Islamic State militants and a Kurdish militia. Ankara is particularly worried about the presence of the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG militia near its southern border.

Ankara considers the militia to be an extension of the outlawed PKK, which has carried out a three-decade insurgency in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast. The PKK is considered a terrorist group by Europe, the United States and Turkey.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said last week that Baghdad was ready to cooperate with Ankara to prevent attacks from Iraq into Turkey. He also called on Turkey to “respect Iraqi sovereignty” and accused Turkish politicians of raising tensions for domestic purposes ahead of June 24 elections.

Erdogan has also vowed to extend military operations in Syria if need be, a stance that has caused friction with NATO ally the United States, which has backed the YPG in the fight against Islamic State.

(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Writing by Ezgi Erkoyun; Editing by David Dolan)

U.S. pastor denies allegations of coup links as Turkey trial begins

FILE PHOTO: Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina, U.S. who has been in jail in Turkey since December 2016, is seen in this undated picture taken in Izmir, Turkey. Depo Photos via REUTERS

By Ezgi Erkoyun

ALIAGA, Turkey (Reuters) – A U.S. pastor denied allegations of links to a group accused of orchestrating a failed military coup in Turkey as he went on trial on Monday in a case that has compounded strains in U.S.-Turkish relations.

Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was indicted on charges of helping the group that Ankara holds responsible for the failed 2016 coup against President Tayyip Erdogan. He faces up to 35 years in prison.

“I’ve never done something against Turkey. I love Turkey. I’ve been praying for Turkey for 25 years. I want truth to come out,” Brunson told the court in the western Turkish town of Aliaga, north of the Aegean city of Izmir.

Brunson has been the pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church, serving a small Protestant congregation in Turkey’s third largest city.

Turkish gendarmes patrol outside of Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Sadi Osman Temizel

Turkish gendarmes patrol outside of Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Sadi Osman Temizel

“I do not accept the charges mentioned in the indictment. I was never involved in any illegal activities,” said Brunson, wearing a white shirt and black suit and making his defence in Turkish. His wife was in the courtroom, as were North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis and the U.S. envoy for religious freedom, Sam Brownback.

Brunson’s trial is one of several legal cases roiling U.S.-Turkish relations. The two countries are also at odds over U.S. support for a Kurdish militia in northern Syria that Turkey considers a terrorist organisation.

Washington has called for Brunson’s release while Erdogan suggested last year his fate could be linked to that of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose extradition Ankara has repeatedly sought to face charges over the coup attempt.

Gulen denies any association with the coup bid. Tens of thousands of Turks have been arrested or lost their jobs over alleged connections with the coup bid.

“The United States cares deeply about our relationship with Turkey,” Brownback told reporters during a recess at the trial “That relationship is going to have difficulty moving forward as long as Andrew Brunson is incarcerated.”

RELIGIOUS BELIEFS

Brunson’s lawyer said the pastor, detained 18 months ago, was in custody because of his religious beliefs. Turkey is a majority Muslim country though constitutionally secular.

“There is evidence that shows Brunson was arrested due to his faith,” Ismail Cem Halavurt told Reuters on the eve of the trial, saying Brunson’s religious role had been “classified as aiding terror organisations”.

The Izmir prosecutor’s office said that sufficient evidence had been obtained to charge Brunson with aiding armed terrorist organisations and obtaining confidential government information for political and military espionage.

A copy of Brunson’s indictment seen by Reuters accuses him of working both with Gulen’s network and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group which has waged an insurgency in mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.

Halavurt said on Sunday he believed Brunson would ultimately be acquitted and there was no reason for his continued detention during trial. “Our prior expectation from the hearing is ending the arrest,” he said. “We want Brunson to be freed immediately.”

(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in Ankara; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by David Dolan/Mark Heinrich)

Turkey says its forces won’t stay in Syria’s Afrin region

Turkish forces and Free Syrian Army are deployed in Afrin, Syria March 18, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil As

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish forces will withdraw from the Syrian border region of Afrin, leaving it to its “real owners”, once it has been cleared of “terrorists”, Turkey said on Monday.

Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies swept into the regional capital, also called Afrin, on Sunday, raising their flags in the town center and declaring full control after an eight-week campaign against the Kurdish YPG militia.

“We are not permanent there (in Afrin) and we are certainly not invaders. Our goal is to hand the region back to its real owners after clearing it of terrorists,” Bekir Bozdag, a deputy prime minister, told reporters.

The fight for Afrin, a once-stable pocket of northwest Syria, has opened a new front in the country’s multi-sided civil war and highlighted the ever-greater role of foreign powers such as Turkey. More than 150,000 people have fled Afrin in recent days, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said.

Bozdag said the capture of the town of Afrin as part of Turkey’s ‘Operation Olive Branch’ had significantly reduced threats to its borders.

It is Turkey’s second cross-border operation into Syria during that country’s seven-year civil war.

The first operation, dubbed “Euphrates Shield”, targeted what Ankara called a “terror corridor” made up of Islamic State and Kurdish fighters further east from Afrin along its southern frontier with Syria.

After the completion of the Euphrates Shield operation in early 2017, Turkey set up local systems of governance in the swathe of land captured, stretching from the area around Azaz – located to the northeast of Afrin – to the Euphrates River and protected by Turkish forces present there.

Bozdag said Turkey now aimed to form similar governance systems in the Afrin region, without elaborating.

Turkey’s campaign in Afrin has drawn criticism in the West, including the United States and France, which have provided arms and training to the YPG and fear that the incursion could weaken international action against Islamic State fighters in Syria.

Ankara views the YPG as an extension of the militant PKK group that has waged an insurgency in southeast Turkey for decades. Turkey has been infuriated by the Western support given to the Syrian Kurdish fighters.

Bozdag said Turkey had collected “most” of the weapons given to Kurdish fighters by the United States, after the YPG left the arms behind as they fled the town.

(Reporting by Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by David Dolan and Gareth Jones)

Civilians flee as two big Syria battles enter decisive phases

FILE PHOTO: People walk with their belongings as they flee the rebel-held town of Hammouriyeh, in the village of Beit Sawa, eastern Ghouta, Syria March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Thousands of civilians were fleeing from besieged enclaves on opposite ends of Syria on Friday as two major battles in the multi-sided civil war entered decisive phases, with hundreds of thousands of people trapped in the path of both assaults.

Air strikes killed dozens of people in eastern Ghouta, a war monitor said, and weary residents streamed out on foot for a second day as Russian-backed government forces pressed their campaign to capture the last big rebel bastion near Damascus.

On another front, Turkish and allied Syrian rebel forces shelled the northern Kurdish-held town of Afrin heavily, killing at least 18 people and forcing 2,500 people to flee, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor reported.

The Kurdish YPG militia, defending Afrin, said it was battling the Turkish forces and their Syrian militia allies who tried to storm the town from the north.

The two offensives, one backed by Russia and the other led by Turkey, have shown how Syrian factions and their foreign allies are aggressively reshaping the map of control after the defeat of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate last year.

The Syrian war entered its eighth year this week having killed half a million people and driven more than 11 million from their homes, including nearly 6 million who have fled abroad in one of the worst refugee crises of modern times.

The government launched its assault on eastern Ghouta a month ago, and Turkey began its cross-border campaign in Afrin in January. In both cases, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been trapped inside areas encircled on the battlefield.

AIR STRIKES KILL 57, CIVILIANS FLEE

Backed by Russia and Iran, government forces have thrust deep into eastern Ghouta, splintering the area into three separate enclaves. The United Nations believes up to 400,000 people have been trapped inside the rebel-held area of densely populated farms and satellite towns on the outskirts of the capital, with virtually no access to food or medicine.

For the first time since the government unleashed the Ghouta offensive, one of the deadliest of the war, residents are fleeing in their thousands, carrying children and belongings on foot from rebel-held territory to reach government positions.

Moscow and Damascus accuse the rebels of having forced people to stay in harm’s way to use them as human shields. The rebels deny this and say the aim of the government assault is to depopulate opposition areas.

The Observatory said air strikes in eastern Ghouta killed 47 people in the town of Kafr Batna and another 10 people in Saqba on Friday. It said Russian aircraft had carried out the strikes. Syrians believe they can distinguish Russian aircraft from those of the Syrian army because the Russians fly at higher altitude.

Syrian State TV broadcast footage of men, women and children walking along a dirt road near the town of Hammouriyeh, many of them carrying bags, to escape rebel-held areas. Some waved to the camera and said the rebels had stopped them from leaving.

Russian news agencies reported that around 3,300 people had come out on Friday morning. An army officer at Hawsh Nasri, where hundreds of people gathered, told Reuters that many more people were expected to leave on Friday.

Around 5,000 people were sheltering at the nearby town of Adra and many more would arrive on Friday, the Adra mayor said. “Today we are expecting a big number,” Jassem al-Mahmoud said.

The exodus began on Thursday with thousands fleeing the southernmost of the three Ghouta pockets. Russia said more than 12,000 people left on Thursday.

The eastern Ghouta town of Douma, where many people are sheltering, has been spared the worst of the shelling in recent days, a resident said.

During campaigns to recover other areas, the Syrian government has taken territory by allowing rebel fighters and opposition activists safe passage out to insurgent-held areas at the Turkish border. Russia has offered similar safe passage to rebels who leave eastern Ghouta, but so far they have refused.

ALARMING REPORTS

The Ghouta and Afrin campaigns have both continued despite a U.N. Security Council demand for a ceasefire. Moscow and Damascus argue the enemies they target in Ghouta are terrorists unprotected by the truce. Turkey says the same of the Kurdish YPG militia it is fighting in Afrin.

The foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran and Russia convened a meeting in the Kazakh capital Astana to discuss the situation in Syria. The three states last year agreed to contain the conflict on several fronts with “de-escalation zones”, while simultaneously pursuing own military objectives in Syria.

Turkey wants to crush the YPG which it views as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency in Turkey. The United States views the YPG as a valuable partner in its war against Islamic State in Syria.

A spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said it had received “deeply alarming reports from Afrin in northwestern Syria about civilian deaths and injuries due to airstrikes and ground-based strikes, as well as reports that civilians are being prevented from leaving Afrin city by Kurdish forces.”

Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen TV broadcast footage from the Afrin area showing cars, small trucks, tractors and groups of people on foot leaving the town. An elderly man told the channel he had left on foot at 2 a.m. when shells started falling.

“There are a lot of people leaving the city as well, and a lot still inside,” he said.

Birusk Hasakeh, the YPG spokesman in Afrin, said the Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel militia allies were trying to storm Afrin from the north. The YPG and its all-female affiliate, the YPJ, were battling the attacking forces.

“They are shelling in order to storm (Afrin),” Hasakeh said by phone. The shelling had killed 18 people and more people were believed to be trapped under rubble, he said.

The spokesman for Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday that Turkey expected its forces and rebel allies to clear Afrin town of militants “very soon”.

(Reporting by Tom Perry and Dahlia Nehme in Beirut, Firas Makdesi in Damascus, Jack Stubbs in Moscow and Tom Miles in Geneva; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Peter Graff)

Turkey gains control of border strip inside Syria’s Afrin, sends special forces

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters sit at a back of a pick-up truck near the city of Afrin, Syria February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ellen Francis

ANKARA/BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Turkish army on Monday took control of the outer edge of Syria’s Afrin region, state media said, as Ankara said it was readying for a “new battle” by deploying police special forces.

The military and allied Syrian rebel factions pushed some Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters back from the frontier near the Turkish border, effectively creating a “crescent” of control on Syria’s side of the border, the state-run news agency Anadolu reported.

Since launching its operation in the northwest Syrian region, Turkey has captured 115 “strategic points” and 87 villages, Anadolu said.

The Syrian Kurdish YPG forces said Turkish warplanes had struck a village near Jandaris in the southwest of Afrin, killing five civilians.

A YPG-led alliance said its forces had responded in self-defense to Turkish attacks, and that fighting raged on multiple fronts around Afrin. Five Turkish soldiers were killed in the space of 24 hours, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said Turkish troops now held a continuous strip on the edge of Afrin.

The advance opens a corridor that links territory in Aleppo province under the control of rebels backed by Turkey with the insurgent stronghold of Idlib province.

Ankara sees the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging an insurgency in southeast Turkey for three decades – though the groups say they are independent.

“NEW BATTLE APPROACHING”

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag told the broadcaster NTV that the deployment of police special forces “is in preparation for the new battle that is approaching”.

Dogan news agency reported that gendarmerie and police special forces had entered Afrin from two points in the northwest, and said they would take part in urban fighting and holding villages that Turkish forces had seized.

Most of the larger towns in the region, including the town of Afrin itself, remain under YPG control.

Turkey says Saturday’s U.N. Security Council demand for a 30-day truce across Syria does not apply to its offensive in Afrin.

“Some regions such as eastern Ghouta are part of the U.N.’s ceasefire decision in Syria, but Afrin is not one of them,” said Bozdag, who is also the government spokesman. “The decision will not impact our Olive Branch operation … in the Afrin region.”

But French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday told Turkey the ceasefire did apply to Afrin.

The U.N. Security Council resolution demands all parties “cease hostilities without delay … for a durable humanitarian pause for at least 30 consecutive days throughout Syria”.

The cessation does not apply to military operations against Islamic State, al Qaeda and groups associated with them or other groups designated as terrorist organizations by the Security Council.

The PKK is branded a terrorist group by the United States and European Union as well as by Turkey, but the YPG is Washington’s main military ally in northeast Syria.

(Additional reporting by Daren Butler in Istanbul; Writing by Dominic Evans and David Dolan; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Turkey denies allegation of chemical attack in Syria

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighter stands on rubble in Northern Afrin countryside, Syria, February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashaw

MUNICH (Reuters) – Turkey never used chemical weapons in its operations in Syria, and takes the utmost care of civilians, its foreign minister said, after Syrian Kurdish forces and a monitoring group accused it of carrying out a gas attack in Syria’s Afrin region.

“It’s just a fabricated story. Turkey has never used any kind of chemical weapons,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters at the Munich Security Conference.

Cavusoglu dismissed the reports as propaganda by organizations close to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has waged a three-decade insurgency on Turkish soil.

He said Turkey took the utmost care to protect civilians in the military operation, while the YPG was using civilians as “human shields” in areas under its control.

Syrian Kurdish forces and a monitoring group said the Turkish military carried out a suspected gas attack that wounded six people in Syria’s Afrin region on Friday.

Turkey launched an air and ground offensive last month on the Afrin region, opening a new front in the multi-sided Syrian war, to target Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

The White House said it was aware of the reports but could not confirm them.

“We judge it is extremely unlikely that Turkish forces used chemical weapons,” a spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council said. “We continue to call for restraint and protection of civilians in Afrin.”

Birusk Hasaka, a spokesman for the Kurdish YPG militia in Afrin, told Reuters that a Turkish bombardment hit a village in the northwest of the region, near the Turkish border. He said it caused six people to suffer breathing problems and other symptoms indicative of a gas attack.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Reuters that Turkish forces and their Syrian insurgent allies hit the village on Friday with shells. The Britain-based war monitoring group said medical sources in Afrin reported that six people in the attack suffered breathing difficulties and dilated pupils, indicating a suspected gas attack.

Syrian state news agency SANA, citing a doctor in a Afrin hospital, said Turkish shelling of the village caused choking in six people.

On Feb. 6, the United Nations called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Syria.

Since the onset of the conflict in 2011, the YPG and its allies have set up three autonomous cantons in the north, including Afrin. Their sphere of influence expanded as they seized territory from Islamic State with U.S. help, though Washington says it opposes their autonomy plans.

U.S. support for Kurdish-led forces in Syria has infuriated Ankara, which views them as a security threat along its frontier. Turkey sees the YPG as terrorists and an extension of the banned PKK.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Peter Graff)

U.N. demands Syria ceasefire as air strikes pound rebel-held areas

A man stands on rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria Janauary 9, 2018.

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The United Nations called on Tuesday for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Syria of at least a month as heavy air strikes were reported to have killed at least 40 people in rebel-held areas near Damascus and in the northwest.

Separately, U.N. war crimes experts said they were investigating multiple reports of bombs allegedly containing chlorine gas being used against civilians in the rebel-held towns of Saraqeb in the northwestern province of Idlib and Douma in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus.

The Syrian government denies using chemical weapons.

The latest air strikes killed 35 people in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs after 30 died in bombardments of the same area on Monday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Air strikes in rebel-held Idlib killed six.

“Today there is no safe area at all. This is a key point people should know: there is no safe space,” Siraj Mahmoud, the head of the Civil Defence rescue service in opposition-held rural Damascus, told Reuters.

“Right now, we have people under rubble, the targeting is ongoing, warplanes on residential neighborhoods.”

Insurgent shelling of government-held Damascus killed three people, the Observatory and Syrian state media reported.

U.N. officials in Syria called for the cessation of hostilities to enable humanitarian aid deliveries, and the evacuation of the sick and wounded, listing seven areas of concern including northern Syria’s Kurdish-led Afrin region, being targeted by a Turkish offensive.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, helped by Iranian-backed militias and the Russian air force, is pursuing military campaigns against insurgents in the last major pockets of territory held by his opponents in western Syria.

GHOUTA AND IDLIB

There were air strikes on towns across the Eastern Ghouta, including Douma, where an entire building was brought down, a local witness said. In Idlib, where pro-government forces are also on the offensive, at least five people were killed in the village of Tarmala, the Observatory said.

Khalil Aybour, a member of a local council, said rescue workers were under enormous pressure “because the bombing is all over the Ghouta”.

The U.N. representatives noted that Eastern Ghouta had not received inter-agency aid since November.

“Meanwhile, fighting and retaliatory shelling from all parties are impacting civilians in this region and Damascus, causing scores of deaths and injuries,” said their statement, released before the latest casualty tolls emerged on Tuesday.

They said civilians in Idlib were being forced to move repeatedly to escape fighting, noting that two pro-government villages in Idlib also continued to be besieged by rebels.

Syria’s protracted civil war, which spiraled out of street protests against Assad’s rule in 2011, will soon enter its eighth year, having killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced millions to leave the country as refugees.

Paulo Pinheiro, head of the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said the government siege of Eastern Ghouta featured “the international crimes of indiscriminate bombardment and deliberate starvation of the civilian population”.

Reports of air strikes hitting at least three hospitals in the past 48 hours “make a mockery of so-called “de-escalation zones”, Pinheiro said, referring to a Russian-led truce deal for rebel-held territory, which has failed to stop fighting there.

The conflict has been further complicated since January by a major offensive by neighboring Turkey in Afrin against the Kurdish YPG militia.

“U.S. CALCULATIONS”

The YPG has been an important U.S. ally in the war against Islamic State militants, but Ankara sees it as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and Washington.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan ramped up his verbal assault on the U.S. role in Syria on Tuesday, saying U.S. forces should leave Manbij, a Syrian city held by YPG-allied forces with support from a U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition.

“If the United States says it is sending 5,000 trucks and 2,000 cargo planes of weapons for the fight against Daesh (Islamic State), we don’t believe this,” Erdogan told members of his AK Party in parliament.

“It means you have calculations against Turkey and Iran, and maybe Russia.”

In agreement with Iran and Russia, the Turkish military is setting up observation posts in parts of Idlib and Aleppo province. But tensions have flared as Turkish forces moved to set up one such post south of Aleppo.

The Turkish military said a rocket and mortar attack by militants had killed one Turkish soldier while the post was being set up on Monday.

It was the second attack in a week on Turkish soldiers trying to establish the position, near the front line between rebels and pro-Syrian government forces.

In an apparent warning to Ankara, a commander in the military alliance supporting Assad said the Syrian army had deployed new air defenses and anti-aircraft missiles to front lines with rebels in the Aleppo and Idlib areas.

“They cover the air space of the Syrian north,” the commander told Reuters. That would include the Afrin area where Turkish warplanes have been supporting the ground offensive by the Turkish army and allied Free Syrian Army factions.

(Reporting Tom Perry and Lisa Barrington in Beirut, Daren Butler and Orhan Coskun in Istanbul, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Turkey detains nearly 600 for opposing Syrian offensive

Turkish military armoured vehicles arrive at a border village near the town of Hassa in Hatay province, Turkey, January 21, 2018

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Dominic Evans

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey has so far detained 573 people for social media posts and protests criticizing its military offensive in Syria, the government said on Monday.

The crackdown, which has extended to the national medical association, has deepened concerns about free speech under President Tayyip Erdogan, who has criticized opponents of the military intervention as “traitors”.

Turkey last month launched an air and ground offensive, dubbed Operation Olive Branch, against the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria’s northwestern Afrin region. Authorities have repeatedly warned they would prosecute those opposing, criticizing or misrepresenting the incursion.

“Since the start of Operation Olive Branch, 449 people have been detained for spreading terrorist propaganda on social media and 124 people detained for taking part in protest action,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

The operation has been widely supported by Turkey’s mainly pro-government media and by most political parties, with the exception of the pro-Kurdish opposition.

Last week, a prosecutor ordered the detention of 11 senior members of the Turkish Medical Association, including its chairman, after the organization criticized the incursion, saying: “No to war, peace immediately”.

Erdogan criticized the body as traitors. All of the doctors have since been released on probation, the association said on Twitter. Detention orders have been issued for another 13 people for supporting the medics.

“There are laws that prohibit the glorification of terrorism, support for terrorism through propaganda and media. The prosecutors are implementing the laws,” Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, told reporters in Istanbul at the weekend.

Ankara considers the U.S.-backed YPG, which controls Afrin, to be a terrorist group and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has fought an insurgency in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast since 1984.

Turkey is in the midst of a widening crackdown that began after a failed coup attempt in July 2016. Some 50,000 people have been jailed and 150,000 sacked or suspended from their jobs.

Critics, including rights groups and some Western allies, say Erdogan is using the coup as a pretext to muzzle dissent. The latest arrests have also drawn criticism from the European Union.

Turkey says its measures are necessary due to the gravity of the security threats it faces.

(Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by David Dolan and Janet Lawrence)