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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Turkey shells Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria

At least four people were killed in the attack

Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army soldiers shoot with heavy machine gun during an offensive, at Der Mismis Village, southeast of Afrin, Syria, 13 March 2018.  EPA/STR
Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army soldiers shoot with heavy machine gun during an offensive, at Der Mismis Village, southeast of Afrin, Syria, 13 March 2018.  EPA/STR

Turkey shelled a Kurdish-held region of northern Syria on Wednesday, a day after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to destroy Kurdish militias east of the Euphrates river.

The shells targeted the villages of Selim and Kor Ali west of Kobane, according to the Kurdish-run Hawar News Agency.

Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT said four Kurdish fighters were killed after Turkish forces fired howitzer shells from Turkey's southeastern province of Sanliurfa, along the Syrian border. Six others were reportedly wounded in the strikes, TRT said.

Hawar told The National that two Kurdish fighters belonging to the Self Defense Forces, an affiliate of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, were killed in the attack. The remaining casualties are reportedly civilian.

"We are going to destroy the terrorist structure in the east of the Euphrates," Mr Erdogan told parliamentarians from his ruling Justice and Development Party in parliament on Tuesday. "We have completed our preparations, plans, programmes regarding this issue."

The SDF said they responded to Wednesday's attack by destroying a Turkish military vehicle in Kobani. “We have the right to retaliate against any attack on our lands,” the group said in a statement.

A video released by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) on YouTube purported to show SDF fighters blasting the vehicle.

Wednesday's assault is the second time Turkey has targeted Kurdish positions east of the Euphrates River over the past three days. Turkey shelled YPG positions in Kobane on Sunday.

Turkey considers the YPG militia an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has led an insurgency in Turkey for more than three decades.

The YPG has worked closely with the United States in the fight against ISIS in Syria, straining relations between Washington and Ankara.

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Further south, US coalition warplanes carried out strikes on ISIS positions near the Iraqi border overnight ahead of a final push to drive militants out of their last holdout east of the Euphrates river, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The SDF, meanwhile, continued to mass around the ISIS-held Hajin pocket in preparation for the assault. The SOHR says that 700 special forces from the YPG and its female affiliate the YPJ have deployed to front lines in the area in recent days.

Boosting their fighting power, local tribesmen from Deir Ezzor have also mobilised around the last ISIS pocket. At least 2000 members of the Al Shaitat tribe, one of Deir Ezzor’s most prominent, are aiding the SDF’s efforts, according to the monitoring group.

ISIS beheaded, crucified and shot more than 700 members of the Al Shaitat tribe in Deir Ezzor in 2014, creating a bitter rivalry between the clan and the militant group.

The preparations come after ISIS launched a fierce attack on Friday against the SDF, forcing them to retreat from the Hajin pocket. The SOHR said around 70 SDF fighters were killed in the assault, which ISIS launched under cover of a sandstorm using suicide bombers and female fighters. The SDF says it lost 14 fighters.

Iraq’s Shiite paramilitary groups on Wednesday said they killed two ISIS commanders who ordered last week’s attack on the SDF. Ahmed Nasrallah, a PMF operations commander for western Anbar, said in a statement on the umbrella group’s website that the Iraqi military had provided information on militant gathering locations near the Iraqi border.

Iraqi Shiite militias reinforced their side of the border area in response to Friday's attack on the SDF in Syria, and Iraq's military said it was ready to take on any militants who tried to cross.