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Turkey captures strategic hill as Ankara's Afrin offensive intensifies Open in fullscreen

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Turkey captures strategic hill as Ankara's Afrin offensive intensifies

The hill overlooks Kilis and Azaz, either side of the Turkish-Syrian border. [Getty]

Date of publication: 28 January, 2018

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More than 42 civilians have been killed since 20 January - including 12 children - as Turkey intensifies its offensive in northern Syria.

Turkish armed forces and allied Syrian militias seized a strategic outpost from Kurdish fighters Sunday, pressing ahead with a military campaign that has strained relations with the US.

Ankara last week launched "Operation Olive Branch" aimed at rooting out the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia - which Ankara sees as a terror group - from its Afrin enclave in northern Syria.

More than 42 civilians have been killed since 20 January - including 12 children - most of them in Turkish air strikes. Ankara denies shelling any civilian areas.

In a sign of the sheer ferocity of the fighting, 69 pro-Turkish rebels have been killed, as well as 66 Kurdish fighters.

Seven Turkish soldiers have died since "Olive Branch" was launched, while around 40 others have been injured.

After days of poor visibility due to adverse weather conditions, Turkish warplanes and artillery on Sunday took advantage of clear skies and seized Mount Barsaya near the Kurdish town of Afrin in north-western Syria, the military command said in a statement.

The hill is significant because it overlooks the towns of Kilis and Azaz, either side of the Turkish-Syrian border.

Despite souring relations with NATO ally Washington, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to expand the offensive against the YPG to Manbij, east of Afrin.

In a sign the Turkish campaign has rendered prospects for peace in Syria even fainter, authorities in the war-torn country's Kurdish autonomous region said they will not attend peace talks in Russia.

"We said before that if the situation remained the same in Afrin we could not attend," regional official Fawza al-Yussef said.

Rebel backer Turkey is one of the sponsors of the talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Monday and Tuesday, along with Damascus allies Russia and Iran.

Soured US-Turkish relations

Turkish relations with the US have dipped over their stances on the YPG, which Ankara says is a "terrorist" offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

The PKK, which has waged a war against the Turkish state for three decades, is proscribed as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies.

US President Trump earlier this week urged Erdogan to "de-escalate" his forces assault on Afrin as he expressed concern about "the destructive and false" anti-US rhetoric emanating from Turkey.

Adding fuel to the fire, Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Saturday urged the US to "immediately withdraw" its personnel from Kurdish-held Manbij, which Ankara has also threatened to attack.

"We are going to cleanse Manbij" after Afrin, government spokesman Bekir Bozdag said Sunday, according to Anadolu.

Manbij was retaken from IS by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in 2016 as part of a push that would later recapture the city of Raqqa from the Islamic State group.

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