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    Turkey shells Afrin as it awaits removal of Russian military observers

    Turkey shelled Afrin on Friday amid reports Russian military observers were withdrawing from the Syrian-Kurd canton, in a move that would allow Turkish forces to launch a ground assault on Kurdish militants.
    Russia has based military observers in Afrin since 2015, and the subject of their removal was part of negotiations between Turkey and Russia yesterday over what the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said was a matter of national security.
    Turkish media reported that approximately 180 Russian observers were pulling back from their positions on the Afrin/Turkish border, hours after Turkish artillery began what Ankara said was the “de facto” start of operations against members of the Kurdish YPG militia, which it considers part of the PKK terrorist group.
    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted on Friday as saying media reports about Russian military units withdrawing from Syria’s Afrin region had been denied.
    “These reports have been denied,” RIA news agency quoted Lavrov as saying. He did not specify who had denied them.
    But they came hours after Turkey’s defence minister on Friday said operations had started with shelling, and that a wider planned military offensive would take place despite US attempts to dissuade Ankara from such action.
    “The Afrin operation will happen. We are optimising conditions for the operation,” Nurettin Canikli said in televised remarks.
    Canikli said shelling overnight by artillery – described as heavy by Kurdish militia – was the “de facto” beginning of operations that would move onto ground incursions.
    The Turkish military has amassed forces and equipment along its border with Afrin and placed all military units in the area on high alert.
    Local media reports on Thursday said concrete blocks from a wall built along the Syrian border were removed in 12 places to facilitate the movement of Turkish armoured units into Afrin.
    “We have to create the ideal conditions to minimise potential losses. We will show such attention to detail at every stage of the operation,” said Canikli.
    “The threats directed towards Turkey are rising each passing day.”
    On Thursday, US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert called on Turkey to reconsider military action in Afrin.
    “We would call on the Turks to not take any actions of that sort. We don’t want them to engage in violence but we want them to keep focused on Daesh [an Arabic term used for the Islamic State group],” she said.
    Her remarks came after Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, tried to calm Turkish nerves by saying a US military announcement about the construction of a Syrian border, mainly made up of Syrian Kurds, was misconstrued.
    Turkey has dismissed US assurances.

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