BEIRUT (AP) — Turkey’s air force hit two positions of pro-government Syrian fighters deployed last week in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, killing and wounding a number of fighters in an escalation of violence in a region where Turkey has been on the offensive for more than a month, Syrian activists said Friday.
Turkish troops and Turkey-backed opposition fighters have been on the offensive in Afrin since Jan. 20 against Syrian Kurdish fighters. Ankara has also warned Damascus not to send fighters to the area, saying it would target them.
Turkey considers Syrian Kurdish fighters to be “terrorists” linked to a Kurdish insurgency within its own borders.
The pro-government Syrian force began deploying in Afrin on Feb 20, despite Turkey’s threats. Syrian state media said the aim is to defend Afrin.
The airstrikes mark a major escalation between Turkey, the main backer of Syrian opposition fighters trying to remove President Bashar Assad from power, and Syria’s pro-government forces, backed by Iran.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the airstrikes took place late Thursday in the village of Jamaa and killed 17 members of the force known as the Popular Forces.
Syrian state news agency said Turkish forces killed 20 people in Afrin, without providing details. The Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV, which has reporters throughout Syria, including in Afrin, said Turkish warplanes killed 18 pro-government gunmen while 19 more were missing.
Al-Mayadeen said the airstrike occurred after the Popular Forces hit a Turkish helicopter gunship.
The main Kurdish militia in Syria, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, confirmed the attack, saying the airstrikes killed and wounded several fighters without giving further details.
Turkey’s military said Turkish-made ATAK helicopters struck a region in western Afrin, killing nine “terrorists.” It did not provide further details and it was not clear if the airstrikes were in retaliation for the deaths of eight Turkish soldiers who were reported killed there on Thursday.
Turkey’s private Dogan news agency said meanwhile that Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters have entered the town of Rajo, in Afrin, touching off “violent clashes.” Dogan, or DHA, released a video from Rajo showing Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters firing into the distance as well as the fighters milling about.
Near the Syrian capital, Damascus, a five-hour daily truce was in effect on Friday, for the fourth day this week, but no civilians left the city’s rebel-held suburbs known as eastern Ghouta.
State-run al-Ikhbariya TV said rebels shelled a crossing point to Ghouta in order to prevent people from leaving.
The Russia-ordered pause came after a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a nationwide 30-day cease-fire failed to take hold. While the relentless bombing has somewhat subsided in eastern Ghouta, home to around 400,000 civilians, the Syrian government’s push to squeeze the insurgents out of the region continued.
The Observatory and the opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets, reported airstrikes earlier on Friday on the suburbs of Zamalka, Douma and Hazzeh. The Syrian Civil Defense said one person was killed.
French President Emmanuel Macron and President Donald Trump discussed the situation in Syria over the phone and for the immediate implementation of the 30-day cease-fire, the French president’s office said.
Macron and Trump agreed to “work together” for the implementation of the U.N. Security Council resolution that also calls for the transport of humanitarian aid and the evacuation of the injured and sick.
The two called Russia to “put maximal pressure on Damascus, without ambiguity” so that the government commits to respecting the U.N. resolution.
Macron said the use of lethal chemical weapons, if proven, would lead to a strong response. He said he’s extremely vigilant on the issue, the statement said.
Trump also spoke late Thursday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel about Syria and Russia’s newly announced weapons systems.
Merkel’s office said the two agreed on the need for Syrian government forces and their Russian and Iranian allies to abide by a U.N. cease-fire.
Merkel and Trump called on Russia to stop participating in the bombardment of eastern Ghouta. They demanded Assad’s government should be held accountable for the use of chemical weapons, attacks on civilians and the humanitarian blockade.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser contributed to this report from Ankara, Turkey.