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Turkey continues to pound Kurdish fighters in Syria as death toll rises

Ankara has pushed forward with the operation against the YPG as monitor says at least 67 civilians have been killed since 20 January

Turkish forces are seen on Mount Barsaya in northeast of Afrin, Syria 28 January (Reuters)

Turkish air strikes pounded the Syrian border region of Afrin and fighting raged on two fronts as Ankara pursued its offensive against the Kurdish enclave on Tuesday.

A monitoring group and Kurdish sources said Turkey's air force had stepped up its raids on the 10th day of operation "Olive Branch", which sees Turkey providing air and ground support to Syrian opposition fighters in an offensive against Kurdish militia in northwestern Syria.

Ankara has pushed forward with the operation to force the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) from the region despite international concerns and reports of rising civilian casualties.

A montor said at least 67 civilians have been killed since the start of the operation on 20 January. Turkey strongly rejects such claims, saying it is doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties in the operation.

In reaction to the offensive, the Kurds were not attending peace talks on Tuesday aimed at resolving Syria's almost seven-year civil war being held in the Russian city of Sochi. 

Turkish jets were hitting Kurdish positions in the towns of Rajo and Jandairis, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

Syrian rebels backed by Turkey "were engaged in fierce battles against Kurdish forces" in the two towns, said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based monitor, which uses a network of sources to monitor Syria's war.

Since yesterday, the bombardment by Turkish aircraft has not stopped in some areas

- Brusk Hasakeh, YPG spokesman 

"Turkey's aerial campaign against Afrin has escalated since Monday," he added.

A spokesman for the YPG, which Ankara considers a "terror" group, said the strikes had been relentless.

"Since yesterday, the bombardment by Turkish aircraft has not stopped in some areas," the spokesman, Brusk Hasakeh, said.

It was unclear how many civilians remained in Rajo and Jandairis as many had already fled to Afrin town, the capital of the district.

Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli told parliament on Tuesday that "civilian deaths in Afrin are so few that we [Ankara] could say not one civilian killed," reported local media.

Turkish jets have meanwhile been dropping leaflets over Afrin that read "Afrin is for Afrin residents. Please unite against the terrorists."

Hundreds at mass funeral

An AFP journalist on Tuesday heard consecutive strikes hitting areas surrounding Afrin town. 

On Monday hundreds of people attended a mass funeral in Afrin for civilians and fighters killed in the offensive, weeping and carrying coffins draped in Kurdish flags. 

At least 85 YPG militiamen have died, the Observatory says, as have 81 fighters from the rebel groups fighting with Turkish backing. 

Civilian deaths in Afrin are so few that we [Ankara] could say not one civilian killed

Nurettin Canikli, Turkish defence minister 

Turkey says seven of its soldiers have been killed.

Turkish state-run news agency Anadolu reported on Tuesday that two villages in the Afrin region had been "cleared" of the YPG.

Turkey and allied forces have made gains in the offensive and on Sunday seized control of Mount Barsaya, a strategically important high point near the town of Afrin.

A Turkish military convoy of dozens of vehicles crossed the border overnight, the Observatory said. It initially headed towards an area south of Afrin but was forced to change course after coming under fire from forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

Turkish relations with the United States have soured over Ankara's stance on the YPG - which Ankara says is a "terrorist" offshoot of Turkey's outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).