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Hopes for Syria ceasefire dim as Turkey shells Kurds

By AFP - Feb 14,2016 - Last updated at Feb 14,2016

Smoke billows from a fire at the southeastern town of Nusaybin, Turkey, near the border with Syria, where Turkish security forces are battling militants linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), on Sunday (AP photo)

BEIRUT — Hopes for a ceasefire taking hold in Syria this week dimmed Sunday as Turkey renewed its shelling of advancing Kurdish militants and Washington demanded Moscow end air strikes on rebels.

Tensions over Syria have continued to mount despite the proposal from international powers in Munich on Friday for a "cessation of hostilities" within a week.

Defying US and French calls, Turkey on Sunday carried out a second day of shelling on a Kurdish-Arab alliance advancing in northern Aleppo province, prompting condemnation from Syria's government.

Turkey says it is targeting Kurdish forces it accuses of links to the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.

Washington has been working closely with Kurdish forces in northern Syria, and the Turkish attacks highlighted tensions within the US-led coalition battling the Daesh terror group in Syria and Iraq.

Differences were also clear between Washington and Moscow, which backs international diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syria conflict but has also launched air strikes in support of President Bashar Assad, a key ally.

The White House said Sunday that President Barack Obama had urged Moscow to end the strikes in a phone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

“President Obama emphasised the importance now of Russia playing a constructive role by ceasing its air campaign against moderate opposition forces in Syria,” the White House said.

Russia has long insisted that it targets only “terrorist” groups in Syria.

 

Syria demands UN action 

 

The Turkish shelling in northern Syria has added to an already complicated situation in Aleppo province, where regime forces have been making significant advances with backing from Russian air strikes.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed Kurdish-Arab militia alliance, has also advanced in recent days, seizing the Minnigh Air Base and battling to take control of Tal Rifaat, a town held by mostly Islamist opposition fighters just 20 kilometres from the Turkish border.

Kurdish forces already control large parts of Syria along the border and Ankara is concerned the SDF will gain new ground.

Turkey’s state-run Anatolia news agency said the shelling resumed for a second day on Sunday, with the Turkish army using howitzers on the border to hit Kurdish targets around the Syrian town of Azaz.

It said the shelling was in response to incoming fire and targeted the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, whose People’s Protection Units (YPG) is a key component of the SDF.

The SDF announced the deaths of three fighters in the shelling, and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights saying a female civilian was also killed in the fire.

It said the SDF had taken the village of Ain Daqna, cutting the main road used by rebels as a supply route between Tal Rifaat and the border.

It also reported fierce fighting between the SDF and insurgents in the western part of Tal Rifaat, with at least 17 rebels killed.

The US State Department had on Saturday urged the Kurds to stand down, as well as calling on Ankara to cease its shelling.

France joined that call on Sunday, with its foreign ministry urging “an immediate halt to the bombing, both that of the regime and its allies throughout the country and that of Turkey in the Kurdish zones”.

Damascus said the Turkish strikes were a violation of its territory, and urged UN Security Council action to “put an end to the crimes of the Turkish regime”.

It also accused Ankara of allowing some 100 gunmen to enter Syria. The observatory said some 350 Islamist fighters had been allowed to travel through Turkish territory on Saturday to reinforce Islamist rebels in Azaz and Tal Rifaat.

 

Saudi warplanes deployed 

 

The SDF advances came as Syria’s regime piled pressure on rebels throughout northern Aleppo province in a major Russian-backed operation that has displaced tens of thousand of civilians.

The operation has virtually encircled rebel-held eastern Aleppo city and raised concerns among opposition backers including Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Both belong to the US-led coalition carrying out air strikes in Syria, and Riyadh has now deployed warplanes to the Turkish base of Incirlik, a hub already being used by American, British and French aircraft.

Turkey’s Foreign Minster Mevlut Cavusoglu said Saturday that Ankara and Saudi Arabia could launch a ground operation against Daesh.

Senior Saudi defence official Brigadier General Ahmed Al Assiri also said Saturday that there was consensus within the coalition on “the need for group operations”.

He said military experts would meet shortly to decide “the role to be played by each country”.

Echoing Obama’s concerns, a senior figure in the Syrian opposition on Sunday criticised the truce deal as unworkable without an end to Russian strikes.

“What we need is action, and the action I see is that Russia is killing Syrian civilians,” Riad Hijab told the Munich Security Conference.

 

US Senator John McCain also denounced the deal in Munich, saying it would only empower Moscow’s “military aggression”.

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