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Turkish forces nearing centre of Afrin, says Erdogan

Manbij is next target, says president, a move that might lead to a dispute with the US, which has troops in the area
Erdogan vowed to clear the area east of Euphrates River of 'terrorists' up to the Iraqi border (AFP)

Turkey's military and its rebel allies have besieged the northern Syrian town of Afrin and were nearing its town centre, President Recep 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 People's Protection Units (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 on Friday.

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 terrorists up to the Iraqi border

- Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish president

"We are removing the last remaining obstacles standing before our besieging of Afrin city centre," he said, adding there was still about six kilometres to go to reach Afrin from the outskirts of Jinderes.

The armed forces will push on after operations in Afrin and Manbij, further east, to sweep Syrian Kurdish fighters from the length of Turkey's border with Syria, he said.

"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 terrorists up to the Iraqi border.

"Then we will ensure security there and send our (displaced) brothers of Afrin back to their homes."

However a statement on Friday, the YPG denied that Turkish troops had besieged the city.

"The forces of Erdogan's Turkish army... are 10 to 15km away from it," YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud said.

NATO complications

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 US support for the YPG. Washington has backed the group in the fight against the Islamic State group.

The PKK, which has carried out a three-decade insurgency in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast, is considered a terrorist organisation by the US, Turkey and the EU.

In his speech, Erdogan talked about the rise of anti-Americanism in Turkey, which he said US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had brought up in a meeting in February.

“Who will pay the YPG a salary? The United States. When I talk [to the US] about this, they become disturbed. Why are you disturbed? They have been listed in your budget. You have provided them with armoured vehicles and weapons,” he said.

“When I showed him all this on a screen, he complained that ‘anti-Americanism is on the rise in Turkey because you broadcast this sort of information on TVs every day’. As a matter of fact, anti-Americanism is climbing sharply, though I have nothing to do with it."

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