Turkey tightens its grip on Syrian Kurdish enclave

Turkey-backed opposition fighters of the Free Syrian Army acting as police secure the streets of the northwestern city of Azaz, Syria, during a Turkish government-organised media tour into northern Syria, Saturday, March 3, 2018. Turkey considers the group an extension of a Kurdish insurgency within its own borders. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

Turkey's prime minister says Turkish troops have captured a strategic village in the Kurdish-held enclave in northwestern Syria, tightening the grip on the area in the sixth week of its offensive on the area

MARSAWA, SYRIA — Turkey's prime minister said Saturday that Turkish troops have captured a strategic village in the Kurdish-held enclave in northwestern Syria, tightening its grip on Kurdish militia in the sixth week of its offensive on the area.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the Kurdish Afrin district has been "surrounded" by the military, special police and paramilitary forces, as well as allied Syrian opposition fighters.

"Afrin has been surrounded. We have cleared all areas near our borders of terror nests," he said at a rally in the central province of Konya, adding that Turkey would not cease its campaign against "terror."

Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters have been attacking Afrin from the north, west and east, and have formed a crescent around the district.

Turkey said it wants to oust the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, from Afrin. It considers the group a terrorist organization, an extension of a Kurdish insurgency within its own borders. Turkey said 41 of its soldiers have been killed since the operation began.

Associated Press journalists gained access to Afrin district for the first time Saturday on a tour organized by the Turkish-government, visiting a small village recently cleared of the YPG.

Captain Ahmed Taqtaq of the allied Syrian forces in Marsawa village said they seized control of three villages in the last 10 days, fighting some 50 Syrian Kurdish fighters. He said, "Since we were in elevated areas, it facilitated our advance toward these villages." Armed Syrian fighters patrolled the village.

Turkey's Red Crescent and emergency agency distributed beds, blankets and food to some 20 families in Marsawa, where walls were tagged with the logos of the YPG and other Kurdish groups.

Further south, Turkish soldiers kept watch with weapons at the ready in Bursayah Hill, captured in late January. A Turkish flag now flutters above a former YPG watchtower.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syria conflict through on-the-ground activists, said fierce clashes were still ongoing in Rajo, in Afrin's northwest.

If confirmed, Rajo would be the largest center in Afrin to be captured since the Turkish offensive began on Jan.20. Turkish borders run along Afrin's western and northern borders. To the east lies a Syrian territory controlled by Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters. In the south, Syrian government forces control territory.

The offensive has heightened tensions between Turkey and its NATO ally, the United States, which backs the YPG fighting against Islamic State militants in eastern Syria. The U.S. has no troop presence in Afrin, but has said it fears the Turkish offensive could distract from the fight against IS in the east.

Complicating matters further, fighters loyal to Syria's government entered Afrin late last month to support the Syrian Kurdish militia, raising the specter of a possible confrontation between Turkish and pro-government Syrian troops.

Near the Syrian capital Damascus, the government continued its offensive against eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held region, despite a Russian-ordered five-hour humanitarian pause. A U.N. 30-day cease-fire has failed to take hold.

Syrian activists and rescuers said at least six civilians were killed in the ongoing bombing Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Syrian State TV said Saturday that two children managed to escape from the region under gunfire from the rebels, who control eastern Ghouta.

Syrian government and Russian officials accuse the rebels of firing at a corridor set up for evacuation, preventing civilians from leaving.

The corridor, manned by Russia military police and Syrian troops, has since Tuesday been set to open for five hours daily. An elderly Pakistani couple managed to leave after negotiations.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Syrian Civil Defense said six civilians were killed Saturday in government bombings in eastern Ghouta.

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Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb in Beirut and Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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