Turkish shelling on Kurdish Afrin intensifies, kills 7

BEIRUT (AP) — Turkish forces shelled the Kurdish-held northern Syrian town of Afrin on Wednesday killing at least seven people, Kurdish forces reported, as government shelling and airstrikes killed at least 20 civilians in the besieged eastern Ghouta enclave near the capital Damascus, activists said.

Shells slammed into the heart of Afrin at dusk at intervals just second apart, forcing residents to rush for cover, according to video published by the People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG. The group is being targeted by Turkey as a threat to its national security.

A resident reported a worsening bread shortage as tens of thousands of civilians have flocked to the town seeking relief from the advancing forces, shelling, and airstrikes. Azad Mohamed said he waited in line at Afrin’s only bakery for eight hours for a few loaves of bread. He said some residents were being turned away without any.

Afrin is already suffering from water and power shortages after Turkish forces cut supplies from the countryside, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Turkey has bombed several bakeries since launching its offensive on Jan. 20, according to the Observatory.

Thousands of residents had already fled Afrin as the Turkish troops approached, heading toward nearby areas controlled by the Syrian government, but hundreds of thousands more remain trapped in the town as Turkish forces and supporting Syrian opposition fighters move to completely encircle it.

Turkish airstrikes killed at least eight pro-government militiamen, deployed to help the YPG, south of Afrin, according to the Kurdish military group.

A Facebook page of the Nubl and Zahraa villages posted photographs of the eight killed fighters, who were from the villages.

There was no comment from the Turkish or Syrian government.

Turkey had warned the Syrian government against coming to the aid of the Kurdish militia, which Ankara considers “terrorists” and aligned with Kurdish insurgents inside Turkey.

Turkey launched its military offensive into the border region to drive out Syrian Kurdish forces that it considers to be “terrorists” and an extension of Kurdish rebels fighting inside Turkey.

Meanwhile, government shelling and airstrikes killed at least 20 civilians in the besieged eastern Ghouta enclave near the capital, Damascus, activists reported.

A doctor in the town of Hamouria, inside the besieged zone, said his hospital was overwhelmed with casualties and that for four hours ambulances could not move the wounded for care. He spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his own safety. At least 10 civilians were killed in Hamouria.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Ghouta Media Center said the towns of Arbeen, Jesreen and Saqba were also targeted. Recent government advances have cleaved eastern Ghouta into a northern and southern pocket. The bombing Wednesday focused on the south.

Two dozen civilians in need of medical care were evacuated from eastern Ghouta, the latest trickle of urgent cases to leave the area amid an ongoing military offensive as government forces advance.

Local authorities in Harasta, one of the towns in eastern Ghouta, meanwhile, said they have been cut off from the rest of the rebel-held enclave, isolating 20,000 residents with no access to medical aid or supplies.

A spokesman for a medical charity said the isolation meant that Harasta and another cut-off pocket have not been able to send patients out in the evacuation.

A list of least 1,034 patients, including 72 urgent cases, for evacuation from eastern Ghouta has been drawn up, said Mohamad Katoub, of the Syrian American Medical Society, which oversees a number of medical facilities there.

The evacuation is part of a deal negotiated by the United Nations to allow urgent medical cases to leave the rebel-held enclave to government-held Damascus for treatment. About 150 patients and their families left the enclave on Tuesday.

Government forces have recently split the enclave in two and cut off the towns of Douma and Harasta after their offensive intensified in February. Opposition activists say more than 1,100 civilians have been killed since mid-February.

On Wednesday, activists reported continued bombings of the enclave. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Syrian Civil Defense first responders, known as White Helmets, said Kfar Batna, a town in the southwestern corner of the enclave was particularly heavily bombed since Tuesday.

A video by the White Helmets shows rescuers rushing to a neighborhood in the town, scrambling to find survivors and unable to pick up the dead amid continuing bombing. A couple of women emerge from a cloud of smoke, walking over a pile of debris to get to the rescuers.

Meanwhile, Syrian state-run TV broadcast footage of the patients exiting eastern Ghouta. In the footage, about a dozen residents, mostly women and children, many looking haggard and carrying a few belongings, are seen walking out of the enclave through the corridor manned by Syrian soldiers that links between the rebel-held enclave and Damascus. At least two ambulances and a bus brought patients and their families to the area. The broadcaster said 25 people were evacuated.

One resident told the state-run TV that he was happy to get out of eastern Ghouta safely. “I hope all people manage to get out. They all wish to get out. But they (rebel fighters) are not letting them out,” the unnamed resident said. “It is not up to us. It is up to them.”

There is an estimated 400,000 residents trapped in eastern Ghouta.

Despite a U.N. cease-fire, the government’s military offensive continued against the region, only miles from the Syrian capital and in rebel hands since 2012. Russia ordered a daily humanitarian pause late last month, but almost no left during the breaks. Russia and the Syrian government said rebels have prevented the residents from leaving, while rebel fighters say the Russia-ordered humanitarian corridor contravenes U.N. standards for safe and voluntary evacuation.

The largest rebel group in eastern Ghouta, the Army of Islam, negotiated the medical evacuation but vowed to continue fighting till the last man.

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