Fighting rages in northern Syria despite ceasefire as rights groups accuse Turkey forces of ‘war crimes’

Fighting rages in northern Syria despite ceasefire as rights groups accuse Turkey forces of ‘war crimes’

Kurdish forces have accused Turkey of shelling civilian areas, in violation of a US-brokered ceasefire in northern Syria, as fierce fighting continues to rage around the Kurdish-held town of Ras al-Ayn.

Heavy machine-gun fire, shelling and smoke could be seen rising above the border area early Friday, according to witnesses, and a convoy of some 400 civilians heading to the besieged town had to turn around for fear of coming under fire. 

This is despite the implementation of a five-day truce, brokered by the US to pause Turkey’s week-long offensive against the Kurds that has killed more than 70 civilians and displaced 300,000 others.

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Under the terms, Kurdish forces are expected to withdraw from the border, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes to build a buffer zone. 

But Kurdish officials said it was impossible to pull back while they were still under fire.

The truce aims to allow immediate humanitarian access to some of the hardest-hit areas, where rights groups said Turkey and its allies had likely committed war crimes including bombing civilian areas and execution-style killings.

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rightCreated with Sketch.

The Kurdish Red Crescent meanwhile claimed they have mounting evidence of the possible use of banned chemical weapons, including white phosphorus, after at least six patients injured in Turkish strikes on Ras al-Ayn were treated for severe burns and breathing difficulties. The youngest of the six wounded was just four years old. 

Turkey has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and Mr Erdogan on Friday rejected reports Turkish forces had broken the truce or that the fighting was still ongoing.

But Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, maintained SDF forces were still under heavy fire.

“Despite the agreement to halt the fighting, air and artillery attacks continue to target the positions of fighters, civilian settlements and the hospital in Serêkaniyê/Ras al-Ayn,” he said on Twitter.

“Turkey is violating the ceasefire agreement by continuing to attack the town since last night,” he added.

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At least 71 civilians have been killed and 300,000 displaced in Syria, since the start of the fighting according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based monitoring group.

However, the health authority of the Kurdish-led administration in the region put the civilian death toll at 218, including 21 children.

Turkish authorities say eight civilians have been killed and 150 injured on their side in shelling from Kurdish forces.

Turkey launched its controversial cross-border incursion last Wednesday to build a 32km-deep buffer zone against Kurdish forces they deem terrorists for their links to the outlawed PKK in Turkey.

Ankara has pushed ahead with the plan despite facing global condemnation. 

The US slapped sanctions on the country and many states including UK, Germany, France and the Netherlands, have suspended arms sales to Turkey.

Critics have accused President Donald Trump of greenlighting the offensive and abandoning the Kurds, who lost thousands of soldiers helping the US defeat Isis. 

A few days before the operation began, Mr Trump announced US troops would withdraw from northern Syria and not hinder an imminent Turkish attack.

Vice President Mike Pence flew to Turkey on Thursday to battle out a ceasefire deal with Mr Erdogan,but it has so far failed to hold. 

Mr Erdogan said on Friday he had agreed with the US that Turkey would be permitted to build a 440km-long and 32km-wide “safe zone” within northern Syria. 

Turkey has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, saying in a statement they are “conducting an extremely meticulous operation without inflicting even the slightest harm to civilians.”

But Amnesty International said it had “damning evidence” that Turkey and its Syrian armed allies carried out indiscriminate attacks on residential areas, including on a home, a bakery and a school, that could amount to possible war crimes.

Amnesty also detailed the “grisly murder” of prominent Syrian-Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf by members of Ahrar Al-Sharqiya, part of the Syrian National Army, a coalition of Syrian armed groups equipped and supported by Turkey.

Meanwhile, officials in the Kurdish Red Crescent shared photos and medical reports of six severely burned civilians, among them three children aged 4, 6 and 17, who are currently being treated in Hasakah hospital.

The doctors say they suspect the patients may have been exposed to white phosphorus, which once it comes into contact with a person can burn through flesh to the bone. 

The substance is not considered a chemical weapon provided it is used in non-harmful activities such as signalling but is banned for use as an incendiary weapon.

The reports detail third-degree burns across the patients’ faces, chests and backs. They mention two different instances of airstrikes on the 13th and 17th of October in Ras al Ayin. 

Dr Serwan Berry, a KRC spokesman, said “we are trying to investigate because there are burns and other symptoms like difficulty breathing,” 

He added there were more cases that had been transferred to northern Iraq. 

The medics in Hasakah treating the six told The Independent added that they were unable to verify what weapon had been used as they lacked testing equipment. 

A severely burnt child being treated in Hasakah – medics think he may have been the victim of a chemical attack (Kurdish Red Crescent )

“Everything is possible because of the wounds but we lack the labs to confirm, we are waiting on analysis,” Faris a KRC doctor in Hasakah said.

Amnesty, meanwhile, highlighted several instances of possible war crimes including a 12 October Turkish airstrike next to a school in Salhiye, where civilians fleeing the conflict had sought shelter. 

The group said that the frontline was at least a mile away and that four people including two children had been killed.

“They looked like charcoal. The other two people killed were older men, they looked older than 50. Honestly, I am still in shock,” an aid worker at the scene told Amnesty.

In another strike on a convoy of around 400 civilians travelling between Qamishli and Ras al-Ayn on 13 October, Amnesty said that a small contingent of fighters guarding the convoy of 400 people did not justify the attack.

The airstrike, which was caught on camera, killed six civilians, including one journalist.

A reporter who was present at the scene and witnessed the attack described it as “an absolute massacre”.

They also investigated a mortar attack on a home in Qamishli which killed an 11-year-old boy and ripped off the leg of his 8-year-old sister.

A severly burnt young man treated in Hasakah (Kurdish Red Crescent )

Finally, they detailed the 12 October “ambush” and killing of Khalaf, a Kurdish politician, along the international highway linking Raqqa to Qamishli.

According to witnesses and footage of the scene Amnesty analysed, she was dragged out of her car, beaten and shot dead “in cold blood” by fighters from Ahrar al-Sharqiya.

A medical report which was shared with The Independent showed she was hit by multiple gunshot wounds to the head, face and back. She also had fractures to her legs, face and skull, and her skin had been detached from her skull as a result of being dragged by the hair.

“Turkish military forces and their allies have displayed an utterly callous disregard for civilian lives, launching unlawful deadly attacks in residential areas that have killed and injured civilians,” Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, said:

“We call on Turkey again to end violations, hold perpetrators accountable, and protect civilians living under their control. Turkey cannot evade responsibility by outsourcing war crimes to armed groups,” he added.

Many also fear the offensive will see the resurgence of the Isis, as Kurdish forces re-direct their troops guarding prisons and camps to the frontline. 

The Kurds were holding at least 10,000 Isis fighters and their families across camps and prisons before the fighting erupted.

Over 800 Isis affiliates managed to escape from one camp Ain issa, which the SDF lost control of and is now empty.

Most of the 12,000 inhabitants of the camp remain unaccounted for.

Officials in Al-Hol, home to 70,000 people, many of whom are the wives and widows of Isis fighters, told The Independent that 26 families had attempted to break free Thursday night as the fighting drew close but had been reprehended.

“The situation is under control but there are riots, chaos, and protests in the camp,” said the camp official, who asked not to be named. 

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