♦ US-led group: Ankara imposes demographic change in Kurdish area
♦ Sick and injured start leaving rebel enclave
Turkey said yesterday its army and allied rebels had surrounded the Kurdish city of Afrin in northern Syria, raising the prospect of another devastating siege in the country's long conflict.
With Syria's war set to enter its eighth year this week, fighting continues on several fronts, including around Afrin and in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, where preparations were under way yesterday for the evacuation of wounded civilians.
While attention in recent weeks has focused on a ferocious regime assault on rebel-held Ghouta, in Syria's north Turkish forces and allied Syrian rebels have been advancing in their offensive against the Kurdish enclave of Afrin.
In a statement yesterday, the Turkish military said it had completed the encirclement of the city of Afrin, home to some 350,000 people and defended by a well-armed Syrian Kurdish militia, the People's Protection Units (YPG).
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said Turkish forces had de facto surrounded the area by moving to within firing range of the last road leading out of the city towards regime-controlled areas. It said the area included some 90 villages to the west of Afrin city.
The surrounding of Afrin city would be a key step in Turkey's "Olive Branch" operation, launched on January 20 and aimed at ousting the YPG, a key partner of the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group, reported AFP.
Redur Xelil, head of foreign relations for the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed alliance of fighters that includes the YPG, accused the Turkish forces of carrying out "demographic change" in Kurdish territory captured in Afrin, reported Reuters.
Hundreds of civilians were seen fleeing the city of Afrin on Monday towards areas under the control of Syrian pro-regime forces.
It remains unclear what Turkey's next move will be, with some analysts suggesting it will be content to lay siege to Afrin for some time and allow civilians to leave to avoid a high-casualty offensive.
Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have meanwhile been pressing an assault to retake the opposition-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel stronghold near to Damascus.
The Red Crescent was preparing yesterday to evacuate more people in desperate need of medical care through a humanitarian corridor established by the regime and its ally Russia.
The rebel faction controlling Eastern Ghouta's main town of Douma, Jaish al-Islam, said a group of "critical medical cases" would be evacuated though the Wafideen checkpoint at the edge of the enclave.