Defence minister says atack has already begun with shelling of Afrin area across the border
Turkey insists offensive against US-allied Syrian Kurds will go ahead
Turkey will not turn back from its decision to launch a ground assault on a Syrian Kurdish-controlled enclave in north-west Syria and has "de facto" started the offensive with shelling of the area, defence minister Nurettin Canikli said on Friday.
The Syrian Kurdish fighters in the enclave of Afrin and other Kurdish-controlled territories pose a "real" and ever increasing threat to Turkey, Mr Canikli told Turkey's A Haber television in an interview.
"This operation will take place; the terror organisation will be cleansed," he said, referring to the People's Protection Units, or YPG, which Turkey says is an extension of an outlawed Kurdish rebel group that is fighting inside Turkey.
Turkey wants to remove the threat from YPG and thwart the establishment of a Kurdish corridor along its border. It has been massing troops and tanks along the border in past weeks.
The United States however has developed close ties with the YPG over the shared fight against the Islamic State group.
Mr Canikli said Turkey was determined to carry out an offensive in Afrin, and would not be turned back from its decision. He said the operation had "de facto" begun, in reference to Turkish artillery attacks that have been taking place against suspected YPG targets.
He would not say when the operation would take place, saying authorities were working out the best timing for the assault. They were also working to minimise possible losses for Turkish troops, he said, without providing details.
The operation would be conducted by Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters with Turkish troop support, he said.
Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency reported that Russian military police stationed in Afrin had begun leaving the region ahead of the possible Turkish operation, but the report could not be independently verified. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a YPG spokesman denied that Russian troops were leaving the area.
The report came a day after Turkey's military and intelligence chiefs travelled to Moscow to discuss Turkey's planned intervention. Russia is a key ally of the Syrian government of Bashar Al Assad and is supporting his government militarily against an armed uprising that began in 2011.
Mr Canikli also said Turkey had detailed information about the YPG's military capabilities, adding that Turkey had developed sophisticated weapons since its last incursion into Syria in 2016 that were able to counter them.
In a stark warning to Turkey, Syria said on Thursday that its air defence would shoot down any Turkish jets that carry out attacks within Syria. Deputy foreign minister Faysal Mekdad said a military incursion into Afrin would be "no picnic" for Turkey and would be considered an "aggressive act."
The YPG militia said Turkish forces had fired around 70 shells at Kurdish villages in the Afrin in a bombardment from Turkish territory that began around midnight and continued into Friday morning.
Rojhat Roj, a YPG spokesman in Afrin, told Reuters it marked the heaviest Turkish bombardment since the Turkish government stepped up threats to take military action against the Kurdish region.