Rights groups express concern over abuses against civilians in Turkish-held Syrian city of Afrin: report

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Turkish-backed Syrian rebels loot shops after seizing control of the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) on March 18, 2018. In a major victory for Ankara's two-month operation against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria, Turkish-led forces pushed into Afrin apparently unopposed, taking up positions across the city. / AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC

Rights groups are expressing concerns over the increasing abuses against civilians by rebel forces in the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin, the Voice of America news website reported.

Last week a 10-year-old boy with Down syndrome who was kidnapped by a rebel group was killed along with his father and grandfather after their family failed to pay the kidnappers a ransom of $10,000, local media reported.

Such incidents have been rampant since Turkish military and allied Syrian rebels took control of Afrin after a two-month-long military campaign that ousted the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the region in March 2018, rights groups said.

“There has definitely been an uptick in terms of persecution of anybody that shows any kind of dissent to Turkish or rebel presence in Afrin,” said Philippe Nassif, the Middle East and North Africa advocacy director at Amnesty International.

He added that “behaviors such as [kidnapping for] ransom and indefinite detentions and the fear of just being out and about living your life in Afrin is very real for all residents.”

In addition to the Turkish military, there are at least a dozen rebel groups in control of Afrin, including the National Liberation Front and several other Islamist groups who have been accused by rights groups of committing crimes against the local population in the Kurdish-majority city.

Rights experts say that Turkey has a responsibility to stop such violations and to protect civilians in the Syrian city.

“Turkey is an occupying power, so it absolutely has an obligation to be responsible for the actions of its proxy forces that are operating within Afrin,” said Nassif of Amnesty International.

Ankara views the Kurdish YPG as part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been engaged in a three-decade war with Turkish armed forces for greater Kurdish rights in Turkey. The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Since pushing back Kurdish YPG fighters from Afrin in March 2018, the Turkish military has rarely commented on the situation there, but during a press conference in January of this year Turkish presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın said Turkey “is committed to the safety of life and property of Syrians in Afrin.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that monitors human rights in Syria, says Turkish-backed rebels have been carrying out demographic changes in the Afrin region since taking control of the city in March 2018.

“We have been documenting hundreds of cases of demographic change and forced displacement in Afrin,” Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory, told VOA.

Some of the groups that operate under Turkey’s command in Afrin have a goal of turning Afrin into a Sunni Muslim region and resettling people who have been displaced from other parts of the country during the conflict, experts charge.

“This is a pattern that has taken hold in Syria, which has made it even harder to come to a resolution of the conflict,” Nassif said.

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