[UPDATE] Turkey launches airstrikes on Syria’s Afrin province

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A photo taken from Turkey's Hatay shows smoke rising after Turkish military aircrafts hit PYD/PKK observation posts and targets within the 'Operation Olive Branch' launched in Syria's Afrin, on January 20, 2018 in Hatay, Turkey. Burak Milli / Anadolu Agency

Turkish aircraft have launched airstrikes on positions of a US-backed Kurdish militia in northern Syria, in a move likely to heighten tensions with the United States, multiple sources reported on Saturday.

There are also reports of pro-Turkish Syrian rebels advancing on the city.

Turkey says it is launching a full military operation against these Kurds, who it considers a terrorist group.

Turkish officials say Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has discussed Turkey’s military offensive in Syria with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, according to The Washington Post.

Turkey’s Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar also spoke with his US and Russian counterparts, Turkish media reports said.

Ministry officials said Saturday Tillerson had requested a telephone conversation with Çavuşoğlu. They did not provide further details, the Post reported.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan earlier on Saturday had said the Turkish military had de facto launched an offensive in Syria’s Afrin region, which is controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the state-run Anadolu news agency reported.

“This will be followed by Manbij,” he said during a Justice and Development Party (AKP) meeting, adding: “The promises made to us over Manbij were not kept. So nobody can object if we do what is necessary.”

“Starting from the west, we will step by step destroy this terror corridor [areas controlled by the PYD],” Erdoğan added, underlining that operations would extend to Iraqi border.

Turkey views the PYD as the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The Turkish Armed Forces on Friday hit several PYD targets in the Afrin hours after the US called on Ankara not to invade Afrin.

“We would certainly call on Turks not to take any action of that sort,” US State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said at a press briefing on Thursday in response to a reporter’s question about Turkey’s preparations for what is believed to be an imminent invasion.

Calling Nauert’s statement “useless and nonsense,” Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli on Friday stated that a military operation would go forward in Afrin to “remove the terrorist presence” there. But he gave no specifics on timing, saying this was part of the planning, Anadolu reported.

Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on Thursday said the operation in Afrin would be carried out in coordination with Russia and that talks were continuing over the use of airspace.

President Erdoğan last week said Turkey would carry out a military operation in Syria’s Afrin and Manbij regions “if the terrorists do not pull out in one week.”

The Turkish military on Oct. 9 launched surveillance and reconnaissance operations in the northwestern Syrian province of İdlib as part of the multinational “Tension Reduction Control Force.”

President Erdoğan on Oct. 24 said Turkey had to a great extent completed its operation in Idlib, indicating that Afrin would be the next target.

Turkey with Free Syrian Army forces took control of the Jarablus and Al Bab areas in northern Syria during an operation against Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants between August 2016 and March 2017.

More than 70 soldiers were lost during Operation Euphrates Shield, which was evaluated as a strategic move to prevent unification of areas controlled by the Kurdish PYD.

Erdoğan on Oct. 8 said Turkey would not allow a Kurdish corridor in Syria extending along the Turkish border to the Mediterranean while assessing Turkish military operations in Idlib.

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