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Turkey, allies say siege of Syria's Afrin underway


BEIRUT — Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition fighters have begun a siege of the Syrian Kurdish-held town of Afrin, the Turkish military said Tuesday, marking a significant advance in Ankara's seven-week operation that also encircled hundreds of thousands of civilians.

The military said in a brief statement that the siege of Afrin, the main town in the enclave of the same name, had begun on Monday. It said the military took control of “critical areas” of the town but did not provide details.

Thousands of people started to flee Afrin on Monday as the Turkish troops got closer to the town, heading toward nearby areas controlled by the Syrian government.

Turkey launched a military offensive into the border enclave on Jan. 20 to drive out Syrian Kurdish forces that it considers to be “terrorists” and an extension of Kurdish rebels fighting inside Turkey.

Meanwhile Monday, dozens of civilians evacuated the rebel-held Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta, arriving on foot and in buses to an army checkpoint set up by the Syrian and Russian militaries.

Russian news agencies said at least 100 civilians have been evacuated from eastern Ghouta, including 20 women and children. The Syrian government and the Russian military have set up a corridor outside eastern Ghouta to arrange the evacuation from the area, which is home to some 400,000 people.

Syrian government forces have split eastern Ghouta into three separate rebel-held pockets amid rapid advances in the past few days, dealing a major blow to the rebels.

The largest rebel group in eastern Ghouta, the Army of Islam, vowed in a statement to stay in the area and fight advancing government forces until the end.

The Army of Islam's statement came hours after it said it had reached an agreement with government-allied Russian forces to evacuate the wounded from the enclave. Its statement said the deal with the Russians was reached through the United Nations.

Syrian TV showed some people arriving at the Wafideen crossing with government-held territory, including a man walking on crutches and a woman who said she has been waiting for more than a year to evacuate her sick child.

The TV also showed an older man being carried while on a wheel chair before boarding an ambulance. Another woman was held as she could hardly walk.

Hamza Bayraqdar, Army of Islam's chief military spokesman, said in a video statement posted online that “our revolutionary ideology does not allow us to sell the blood of the holy warriors who liberated Ghouta.”

Speaking if his fighters, he added that “we will stay in our Ghouta to defend it until we achieve one of two good things,” he said using an Islamic term that means either “victory or martyrdom.”

Eastern Ghouta'e residents have survived harsh condition because of bombardment and lack of food due to a monthslong government siege. Opposition activists say that since the latest wave of bombings and the government ground offensive began, more than 1,100 civilians have been killed in the enclave.

The Observatory and the opposition's Syrian Civil Defense reported a wave of airstrikes and shelling Tuesday morning on the towns of Saqba, Jisreen, and Kfar Batna, killing and wounding more than 20 people.

The Observatory said evacuations of insurgents and their families began from another rebel-held pocket, south of Damascus. It said hundreds of fighters and their families began leaving on board buses from the neighborhood of Qadam toward the rebel-held province of Idlib in northwestern Syria.

It said the government reached an agreement with rebels in Qadam to evacuate the area recently.

The move appears to have angered the Islamic State group, which controls two areas adjacent to Qadam. IS attacked areas that were evacuated by the rebels and handed over to Syrian troops, the Observatory said.

IS issued a statement saying its fighters attacked Syrian army positions — ones that the army had taken from the rebels — in Qadam, inflicting casualties among the troops.

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