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US warns Turkey over civilians caught in Syria assault

© AFP | Civilians fleeing the city of Afrin in northern Syria on March 19, 2018

WASHINGTON (AFP) - 

The United States warned its NATO ally Turkey on Monday it is "deeply concerned" after a Turkish-led assault on the Syrian city of Afrin triggered an exodus of Kurdish civilians.

"It appears the majority of the population of the city, which is predominantly Kurdish, evacuated under threat of attack from Turkish military forces and Turkish-backed opposition forces," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

"We are also concerned over reports of looting inside the city of Afrin. We have repeatedly expressed our serious concern to Turkish officials regarding the situation in Afrin," she said.

Over the previous 48 hours, Turkish forces and Turkish-backed Syrian Arab fighters have surged into the city in northwest Turkey, once defended by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia.

In the east of the country, the YPG forms the backbone of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the militia which ousted the Islamic State group from its main stronghold of Raqa.

But, while American special forces continue to support the SDF east of the Euphrates river, they have not come to their aid in Afrin, a pocket of autonomous Kurdish-led rule west of the river.

There, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has unleashed his army and Syrian former rebel fighters to take Afrin from a group he sees as aligned with the Kurdish PKK group, fighting within Turkey.

The fight has embarrassed the United States, which is seeking to maintain ties with both its traditional NATO ally and a regional force that has proved its mettle against the Islamic State group.

Nauert said the offensive had worsened the "humanitarian situation in the area, with United Nations agencies reporting a displaced population in or from Afrin district in the hundreds of thousands."

But she made it clear that Washington is not taking sides west of the Euphrates, despite Erdogan having declared that his forces will now take the battle to more Kurdish-held districts.

"The United States does not operate in the area of northwest Syria where Afrin is located," Nauert said.

"We remain committed to our NATO ally Turkey, to include their legitimate security concerns.

"We also remain committed to the Defeat ISIS campaign and our Syrian Democratic Forces partners in eastern Syria," she said.

But the US spokeswoman also warned that the fighting has distracted from the battle against the Islamic State group, which she said had begun "reconstituting in some areas."

"This is a serious and growing concern," she added.

© 2018 AFP