ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey’s military and its rebel allies have besieged the northern Syrian town of Afrin and were nearing its town centre, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday, in what would mark a major advance in Turkey’s military operation.
Turkey launched its operation, dubbed “Olive Branch”, in northern Syria nearly seven weeks ago to sweep the Syrian Kurdish YPG from the Turkish border. Turkey sees the YPG as a terrorist group and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
On Thursday, Turkish forces and their Free Syrian Army (FSA) allies seized control of the nearby town of Jinderes, state media reported. Turkey now controls five out of seven of the settlements in the northwest Afrin region, state media said.
“Now the centre of Afrin is surrounded and our entry is imminent,” Erdogan said in televised speech in Ankara.
“We are removing the last remaining obstacles standing before our besieging of Afrin city centre,” he said, adding there was still about six kilometres (3.7 miles) to go to reach Afrin from the outskirts of Jinderes.
Later on Friday, a spokesman for the YPG denied that the Afrin town had been besieged, and said several of the regions Turkey has claimed to have taken control of were still battlegrounds.
“The forces of Erdogan’s Turkish army ... are 10 to 15 km away from it (Afrin),” YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud said. “Today, there were also clashes around Bulbul, where they announced around 30 days ago that they captured, occupied it.”
Erdogan said Turkey’s armed forces will push on after operations in Afrin and Manbij, further east, to sweep Syrian Kurdish fighters from the length of Turkey’ border with Syria.
“We are in Afrin today, we will be in Manbij tomorrow. The next day we will ensure that the east of Euphrates will be cleared of terrorist up to the Iraqi border.”
Erdogan’s repeated threats to push on to Manbij have caused complications with NATO ally the United States, which has its troops deployed in the area.
Turkey has been infuriated by U.S. support for the YPG. Washington has backed the group in the fight against Islamic State.
The PKK, which has carried out a three-decade insurgency in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, is considered a terrorist organisation by the United States, Turkey and the European Union.
On Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey would complete the Afrin offensive by May and carry out a joint operation with Iraq’s central government against Kurdish militants in Iraq.
Cavusoglu said the operation could begin after Iraq’s parliamentary elections scheduled for May 2018, signalling that Turkish forces may move to northern Iraq following the ongoing operations in northern Syria.
Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu, Ece Toksabay and Ali Kucukgocmen; Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by David Dolan and Matthew Mpoke Bigg