Turkey takes ‘total control’ of Syria’s Afrin, says state media

Turkish forces have ousted the Kurdish YPG militia from the Syrian enclave of Afrin, a week after they captured the main town that bears the same name. The military is now sweeping for mines to allow residents to return.

Turkish soldiers are seen standing next to a tank in the center of Afrin, Syria.

The Turkish military and its Syrian rebel allies have taken “complete control” of the Syrian enclave of Afrin in northern Syria, Turkish state media reported on Saturday.

Last Sunday, Turkish-backed forces seized the main town that is also called Afrin without much resistance from the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.

Anadolu news agency said the Turkish military was now sweeping for mines and explosives to allow Afrin’s resident’s to return.

Turkey launched a ground and air offensive in January against the YPG that controlled Afrin. Turkey considers the YPG a terror group and an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels, which is waging an insurgency within its own borders. Cooperating with YPG, however, forms an integral part of the US-led fight against “Islamic State.”

Read more: Turkey’s military offensive against Kurdish-held Afrin: What you need to know

Watch video01:53

Turkey: Offensive against Kurds in Syria will continue

The offensive has displaced more than 200,000 people from their homes, according to Syrian Kurdish officials and the country’s state media, prompting the EU and United States to issue statements of “concern” over the humanitarian situation.

Read moreWho are the Kurds?

Turkey says it will expand its offensive against the YPG further east of Afrin and even into northern Iraq, a region that Ankara describes as a “terror corridor.”

ap/ng (AP, dpa)

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Ankara vows revenge as 7 Turkish soldiers killed in clashes near Syria’s Afrin

Ankara vows revenge as 7 Turkish soldiers killed in clashes near Syria’s Afrin
Seven Turkish soldiers were killed and a tank lost in Ankara’s ongoing military campaign against Kurdish militias in Syria’s northwestern Afrin region. The casualties marked the deadliest day for Turkey since the offensive began.

Five servicemen died in fighting near the settlement of Sheikh Haruz located north-east of Afrin, the Anadolu news agency reported, citing a statement issued by Turkey’s General Staff. The soldiers were killed as a Turkish tank came under attack, it said.

Earlier, the General Staff also reported about the death of two other Turkish soldiers. One was killed in clashes with local armed groups on Syrian territory, while another lost his life during an attack by what Ankara described as “terrorist groups” in Turkey’s Kilis province.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim vowed retaliatory strikes. “They will pay for this twice as much. We have given the necessary response instantly, and we continue to do so,” he said, apparently referring to the Kurdish militias, Anadolu reports. Following the attack on the tank near Sheikh Haruz, Turkey launched airstrikes targeting shelters, hideouts and ammunition depots of local armed groups.

On Saturday, the Turkish General Staff said 899 fighters of the Syrian Kurdish militias – People’s Protection Units (YPG), Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants and Islamic State (IS, former ISIS/ISIL) terrorists – were “neutralized” since the launch of Operation Olive Branch. It added that 13 Turkish soldiers were killed and 57 wounded since the start of the operation.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey’s troops are closing in on Afrin’s city center as Operation Olive Branch entered its third week. “We are close,” he said Saturday at his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) congress in the eastern Turkish province of Bitlis.

Ankara is targeting the YPG, a Kurdish-led militia it considers a wing of the armed and banned PKK. The YPG controls several enclaves in northern Syria, including Afrin. It secured the territories from Islamist rebels and other extremist groups over the course of the Syrian conflict with crucial backing from the US-led coalition.

Ankara launched air strikes against Kurdish positions late in January, with its troops advancing into the Kurd-held territories. A number of Turkish towns and villages along the Syrian border have meanwhile been hit by rocket strikes.

Turkey claims it seeks to secure its borders by pushing back what it calls “terrorist groups.” The Syrian government, though, has condemned the Turkish operation and considers the incursion a violation of Syrian sovereignty.

An estimated 5,000 civilians were displaced during the first days of the military campaign, according to the UN. UNICEF said at least 23 children have been killed as a result of fighting in the Syrian provinces of Afrin, Idlib, Saraqab, Khan Shaykhoun and the capital Damascus. Local Kurdish sources maintain that 141 civilians were killed, Syria’s state news agency SANA reported.


German intelligence boss: Threat level remains high

Three months after the truck attack on a Berlin Christmas market, domestic intelligence officials say they can’t rule out further attacks. They add that there are other reasons to be concerned about security in Germany.

Deutschland Polizei geht von Anschlag auf Berliner Weihnachtsmarkt aus (Reuters/F. Bensch)

It happened just a few days before Christmas. The very thing German security officials, supported in part by foreign intelligence services, had long been able to prevent: a terrorist attack, claiming many lives. Jihadist Anis Amri killed 12 people on December 19 when he drove a stolen truck into the crowds at a Christmas market in Berlin. Now, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Gemany’s domestic security agency, has warned that it could happen again. “We continue to have a high threat level in Germany,” said BfV President Hans-Georg Maassen.

Speaking to journalists, he said that an important indicator was the high number of leads that his office continues to receive both nationally and from foreign sources. “We are seeing a qualitative change in the type of information we’re getting,” Maassen said. Every single tip is investigated thoroughly. During the period after the Berlin attack until the start of this year, 20 so-called unspecific threat indicators were examined. In the best-case scenario, security officials are able to discover plans for attacks and prevent them from happening.

Watch video02:45

Berlin: Mourning the victims

Terror hotlines ringing

The BfV also considers information leading to raids on apartments or arrests by police officers to be a measure of success. In this regard, the hotline on Islamist terrorism, or HiT, is becoming ever more significant. The number of contacts via the hotline in 2016 (1,100) more than doubled compared to the number recorded in 2015. But, as Maassen said, there has also been growth in the number of potentially violent Islamists, with the figure currently standing at almost 1,600. There is no doubt, he said, that Germany is increasingly becoming a focal point for the terrorist militia Islamic State, or IS.

Maassen also said that he is concerned about developments in Turkey. “For a long time now, we’ve observed that the conflicts playing out in Turkey also affect the security situation in Germany,” he said, adding there is a danger that proxy conflicts could escalate between members of the Kurdish PKK and nationalistic or right-wing Turkish extremists. The PKK is officially classed as a terrorist group by Germany and the EU.

Spill-over effect

Many observers say that the diplomatic dispute between Ankara and Berlin over appearances by Turkish politicians in Germany could spill over. Or, to quote Maassen: “The fault lines between the different camps in Turkey are reflected one to one here in Germany.”



2 foreigners arrested at Istanbul airport in nightclub massacre probe

Story highlights

  • At least 16 people detained so far
  • Gunman still on the loose

Istanbul (CNN)Turkish authorities arrested two foreign nationals at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport Tuesday in connection with the nightclub terror attack early New Year’s Day that left 39 people dead, state-run Anadolu reported.

There were no details available on their nationalities. A total of 16 people have been arrested in connection with the investigation so far, and Turkish authorities are still on the hunt for the gunman who carried out the attack at the Reina nightclub. Dozens more were wounded.
Police released this image from a selfie video shot by the terror attack suspect.

Suspect seen in selfie video

Monday, police released a video that the suspect apparently took of himself in a market near the nightclub. Neither his name nor his nationality have been released.
Laith Alkhouri, a director at Flashpoint, an American business risk intelligence company tracking terrorist and cyber threats, told CNN the “selfie video” featuring the alleged nightclub attacker in Taksim square was first posted on a pro-ISIS Telegram account before being broadcast by Turkish media.
He said that suggests the attacker was part of a network supportive of or linked to ISIS, and that he had shared the selfie footage with them before or after the attack.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement posted to Twitter, but the claim cannot be independently verified by CNN. It boasted about the first major terrorist attack of 2017.
“In continuation of the blessed operations which ISIS carries out against Turkey, a soldier of the brave caliphate attacked one of the most popular nightclubs while Christians were celebrating their holiday,” the statement read.

‘I prayed that it will end soon’

New details emerged about the gunman in Turkish media Tuesday. Police told Haberturk newspaper the attacker took a taxi from Zeytinburnu, a neighborhood near the Istanbul airport, to a district near the club. Haberturk reported the attacker put his backpack in the trunk of the taxi.
Nightclub attack: Full coverage
  • Manhunt underway for shooter
  • Dozens killed when gunman opens fire
  • Turkish news agency IHA reported that according to the taxi driver, the attacker got out of the vehicle in Ortakoy, about four minutes away from the nightclub.
    Surveillance video of the gunman showed him first shooting a security guard and police officer at the entrance of the nightclub.
    Then, according to an interview with the club’s DJ in the Turkish daily Hurriyet, the gunman stood near the DJ booth and started shooting. He changed magazines in the weapon several times and fired more than 100 bullets, Hurriyet said.
    “I prayed that it will end soon, then it ended,” the DJ told Hurriyet. “He possibly changed his clothes. We heard police 5-10 minutes later.”

    PKK denies involvement

    The militant Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, distanced itself from the attack on Monday.
    “No Kurdish forces have anything to do with this attack,” the PKK said. “The Kurdish freedom fight is also the fight for democratization of Turkey. That’s why we won’t target innocent and civilian people.”
    Those killed in the attack were from 14 countries, including India, Morocco, Jordan, Canada, Russia, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

    Turkey nightclub attack: IS says it carried out shooting

    Media captionFootage shows the attacker pointing his gun as he approaches the Reina nightclub

    So-called Islamic State says it was behind the new year attack on a Turkish nightclub that killed 39 people.

    The group said in a statement it was carried out by “a heroic soldier”.

    At least 600 revellers were celebrating in the early hours of Sunday at Istanbul’s Reina nightclub when the gunman began firing indiscriminately, discharging some 180 bullets.

    The gunman is still at large and a manhunt is under way. Police say they have made eight arrests so far.

    IS has been blamed for recent attacks in Turkey, which is taking military action against the group in neighbouring Syria.

    Images released by Turkish police of the man suspected of carrying out the attackImage copyrightREUTERS/AFP
    Image captionImages released by Turkish police of the man suspected of carrying out the attack

    The militant group has already been linked to at least two attacks in Turkey last year.

    The IS statement accused Turkey of shedding the blood of Muslims through “its air strikes and mortar attacks” in Syria.

    Turkey launched a military operation in August aimed at pushing back IS and Kurdish forces, with some of the most intensive recent fighting against IS around the northern town of al-Bab.

    Turkey has also been a key player with Russia in negotiating a truce between moderate rebel forces and the government.

    Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said on Monday that the nightclub attack was a “message” against Turkey’s operations in Syria but that they would not be affected.

    Flowers are placed next to Turkish police officers as they stand guard near the Reina nightclub, which was attacked by a gunman, in Istanbul, Turkey, on 1 January 2017Image copyrightAFP
    Image captionThe nightclub attack came just over an hour into the new year

    More details of the nightclub attack have been emerging. The gunman arrived by taxi before rushing through the entrance with a long-barrelled gun he had taken from the boot of the car.

    The attacker fired randomly at people in an assault lasting seven minutes, starting with a security guard and a travel agent near the entrance. Both were killed.

    The gunman is reported to have removed his overcoat before fleeing during the chaos.

    Media captionClub-goer Francois al-Asmar: “He was shooting us on the floor”

    Turkish media reports quote police sources as saying he may have been from Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan.

    Kyrgyzstan’s foreign ministry said the reports that the suspect might be Kyrgyz were “doubtful” but that it would carry out checks.

    Mr Kurtulmus said Turkish authorities were still working to identify the attacker.

    “Information about the fingerprints and basic appearance of the terrorist have been found,” he said.

    Police are investigating whether he belongs to an IS cell blamed for an attack in June on Ataturk Airport in Istanbul.

    Relatives mourn Ayhan Arik, the travel agent who died at the Istanbul nightclub shooting, 2 January 2016Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES/BURAK KARA
    Image captionRelatives mourn at the funeral of Ayhan Arik, a father of two
    map and satellite shot

    President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused groups such as IS of trying “to create chaos”.

    “They are trying to… demoralise our people and destabilise our country,” he said.

    Turkey suffered a bloody 2016 with a series of attacks, some carried out by Kurdish militants.

    But a day before the IS claim, the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was quick to distance itself from the nightclub attack, saying it would “never target innocent civilians”.

    Some two-thirds of those killed were foreign, according to local media, among them citizens from Israel, Russia, France, Tunisia, Lebanon, India, Belgium, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

    Bollywood director and producer Abis Rizvi was one of those who died, Indian media report.

    Victims by nationality:

    • Turkey: 11
    • Saudi Arabia: 7
    • Iraq: 3
    • Lebanon: 3
    • Jordan, India, Morocco: two nationals from each country
    • Germany, Syria, Israel, France-Tunisia, Tunisia, Belgium, Kuwait, Canada, Russia: one national from each country

    The victims

    A complete record of those killed has yet to emerge. The body of one of those who died has yet to be identified.

    Security guard Fatih Cakmak was one of the first to die.

    His brother said he narrowly escaped a double bombing three weeks ago, having been on duty when Kurdish militants launched an attack near a football stadium, killing at least 44 people, mostly police.

    At least 69 people are being treated in hospital, officials said, with three in a serious condition.

    Media captionBullets are seen being fired by the gunman – and flying off passing cars

    The nightclub, which sits on the banks of the Bosphorus, is one of Istanbul’s most fashionable venues – popular with foreigners and often frequented by singers and sports stars.

    Some guests are reported to have thrown themselves into the water to escape.

    Deadly attacks in Turkey in 2016

    Scene of explosion in Ankara's central Kizilay district on 13 March 2016Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
    Image captionScene of explosion in Ankara’s central Kizilay district on 13 March

    Istanbul was already on high alert with some 17,000 police officers on duty in the city, following a string of terror attacks in recent months.

    10 December: Twin bomb attack outside a football stadium in Istanbul kills 44 people, Kurdish militant group claims responsibility

    20 August: Bomb attack on wedding party in Gaziantep kills at least 30 people, IS suspected

    30 July: 35 Kurdish fighters try to storm a military base and are killed by the Turkish army

    28 June: A gun and bomb attack on Ataturk airport in Istanbul kills 41 people, in an attack blamed on IS militants

    13 March: 37 people are killed by Kurdish militants in a suicide car bombing in Ankara

    17 February: 28 people die in an attack on a military convoy in Ankara

    Turkey coup aftermath: Pro-Kurdish Istanbul protests broken up

    • 5 November 2016
    • From the sectionEurope
    Media captionDemonstrators dispersed as they were hit by freezing water

    Turkish police have used water cannon and tear gas to break up a protest in Istanbul against the arrest of leaders of the pro-Kurdish HDP party.

    Demonstrators assembled outside a mosque in the Sisli district and shouted slogans denouncing the “fascist” state before scattering as they were sprayed with freezing water.

    Nine HDP figures, including its co-leaders, were jailed on Friday.

    Journalists from the pro-opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper are also in jail.

    Nine journalists were arrested on Saturday and remanded in custody by a court in Istanbul.

    Cumhuriyet’s editor, a well-known cartoonist, and an anti-government columnist were among those detained.

    It is the latest in a string of legal moves against critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan since July’s attempted coup.

    On top of the nine HDP detentions on Friday, a further nine party officials, including regional heads from the south-eastern province of Adana, were taken into custody on Saturday.

    The Cumhuriyet newspaper is one of the few Turkish media outlets which remains critical of Mr Erdogan.

    Policeman outside Cumhuriyet office in Istanbul (5 November)Image copyrightTOLGA BOZOGLU
    Image captionA placard outside the newspaper’s Istanbul office read, “Long live Cumhuriyet”

    Its journalists have been charged with links to US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is accused of plotting the coup attempt.

    On the night of 15 July, rebel soldiers used military hardware including tanks and fighter jets to try to seize control.

    Since the coup attempt, a total of about 110,000 people, mainly state employees, have been sacked or suspended and 37,000 arrested.

    Both the Cumhuriyet journalists and HDP politicians will be held in jail until trial. No date has been set for either hearing.

    Cumhuriyet was one of four winners of the “alternative Nobel Prize” in October, alongside Syria’s White Helmets and others., awarded for “fearless investigative journalism and commitment to freedom of expression in the face of oppression, censorship, imprisonment and death threats.”

    Friday’s arrests coincided with a bomb blast in the Kurdish-dominated city of Diyarbakir in the south-east which killed 11 people and injured dozens more.

    Damaged building in Turkey's Diyarbakir after a bomb blast on 4 November 2016Image copyrightAFP
    Image captionA building damaged in the Diyarbakir attack

    Confusion remained on Saturday as to who carried out the attack.

    The governor’s office in Diyarbakir said that the Kurdish militant PKK, which has conducted a campaign of violence for Kurdish autonomy, was behind the blast. It based this on what it said were intercepted communications.

    But on Friday, so-called Islamic State (IS) said, via its Amaq news agency, that it was behind the attack.

    ‘Opponents silenced’

    President Erdogan currently holds emergency powers in the aftermath of the failed July coup.

    They allow the president and his cabinet to bypass parliament when drafting new laws and to restrict or suspend rights and freedoms.

    Critics claim he is using those powers to silence opponents. At the beginning of November, 15 media outlets were closed and 10,000 civil servants were dismissed.

    Related Topics

    Turkey suspends 11,500 teachers as Erdogan declares largest operation against Kurds

    Ankara has dismissed thousands of Kurdish teachers for alleged links to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also announced a massive operation to cull the militants.

    Türkei Militär in Diyarbakir

    Some 11,500 teachers were suspected of activities “in support of the separatist terrorist organization and its affiliates,” the state-run Anadolu Agency news service reported Thursday. Turkey has around 850,000 educators.

    “The individuals in question are temporarily suspended – placed on leave – pending formal investigation,” an official told AFP news agency on condition of anonymity.

    On a visit to the Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir on Sunday, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim had announced that around 14,000 teachers would be suspended for having ties with the PKK.

    Turkish officials also took over two southeastern councils run by the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP). These included the Sur and the Silvan districts, both in Diyarbakir province.

    However, the local governor of the area denied the takeover, according to the Anadolu Agency and the private news agency Dogan.

    “Reports of the taking over of two mayor’s offices in Diyarbakir do not reflect the truth. There has not been such an appointment at this stage. If there is an appointment, a statement will be made,” the official said in a statement.

    Erdogan has dubbed DBP an extension of the PKK. The party is the regional partner of the national Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

    Erdogan has pledged to free the country of the PKK

    The PKK has been waging a war against Ankara since 1984, when it took up arms to fight for an independent Kurdish state in Turkey’s southeast. More than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

    Ankara has listed the organization as a terror group, with Erdogan announcing the largest operation in the country’s history to finish the militants.

    On Thursday, he said the removal of civil servants with links to the terror group was a key element in purging the terrorists. He also said Turkey would continue its offensive in northern Syria, where Kurdish militants have gained a stronghold, having fended off rebel forces and the “Islamic State.”

    “We have run and are currently running the largest operations against the PKK terrorist organisation in ist history, both within and across our borders,” Erdogan said.

    Erdogan’s latest move comes shortly after nearly 40,000 academics, businessmen, journalists and teachers were arrested in Turkey for alleged links with Fethullah Gulen, a US-based cleric suspected of masterminding the failed coup in July.

    mg/sms (AFP, Reuters)