Turkish prime minister says Ankara will not let border town fall as bombardment of Kurdish positions continues for third day
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Monday that his country would not allow the Syrian town of Azaz to fall to Kurdish fighters as Ankara faced renewed international calls to end its bombardment of Kurdish-held territory.
Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters in northern Syria were shelled by Turkish artillery for a third day on Monday after taking advantage of an offensive by pro-government forces and Russian air strikes to seize territory from rival rebel groups near Azaz, close to the Turkish border in northern Aleppo province.
"YPG elements were forced away from around Azaz. If they approach again they will see the harshest reaction. We will not let Azaz fall," said Davutoglu, speaking to reporters aboard his plane as he departed on a state visit to Ukraine.
"The YPG will not be able to cross to the west of the Euphrates (river) and east of Afrin."
Davutoglu also warned Kurdish fighters to withdraw from the Menagh air base, which they captured from the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front last week, and said Turkish forces would "render it unuseable" if they did not.
The US has called on Turkey to stop attacking Kurdish positions and urged Kurdish forces not to claim territory amid concern that the situation has further endangered a tentative plan for a temporary cessation of hostilities by the end of the week to allow for peace negotiations to take place.
Russia on Monday accused Turkey of pursuing a "provocative line" that was "creating a threat to peace and security in the Middle East and beyond" and said it has expressed its "most serious concerns" to the Turkish authorities.
Russia has carried out hundreds of air strikes in support of a Syrian government's offensive in Aleppo targeting rebel-held areas and faces accusations of killing hundreds of civilians since starting its bombing campaign last September. Moscow denies targeting civilians.
On Monday at least nine people were reported killed when a suspected Russian air strike hit a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Syria's northern Idlib province.
Turkey also accused Russia of bombing a charity-run clinic in Azaz, with Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency citing local witness reports that at least 10 people had been killed and dozens more wounded by air strikes on Monday.
Nobody has acknowledged responsibility for the attacks on the hospital or the clinic.
"If Russia continues behaving like a terrorist organisation and forcing civilians to flee, we will deliver an extremely decisive response," Davutoglu told reporters after his arrival in Kiev.
Turkey considers the YPG and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), to be linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state and is considered a terrorist group by Ankara.
Davutoglu said the Kurds were being used as an instrument by Russia.
"Everyone must see this. Today the PKK in Turkey and YPG in Syria are clearly instruments of Russia," he said.
"Russia is using those tools to be able to corner Turkey. Therefore, our stance has a legitimate ground."
The Turkish army on Monday shelled a road west of the town of Tal Rifaat as well as the region west of Azaz, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
Tal Rifaat highlights the complexity and shifting alliances of the battle in northern Syria, with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, on Saturday reported to have launched an attack on one of the few remaining rebel bastions north of Aleppo, which had earlier endured at least 20 Russian air strikes.
The US and Turkey are partners in the US-led coalition that is bombing Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and has sometimes targeted the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, with US warplanes and other coalition air forces based at Turkey's Incirlik air base.
"Fighting has been ongoing since Sunday in the western part of Tal Rifaat between the SDF and rebels," said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.
"At least 26 rebels have been killed in the fighting" for the town in recent days, he added.
On Monday, SDF forces alo seized the village of Kfarnaya, two kilometres south of Tal Rifaat, the Observatory said.