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Terrified children, empty streets in Syria's Afrin as Turkey attacks

© AFP | Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army fighters fire towards YPG positions in the Afrin area on January 20, 2018

AFRIN (SYRIA) (AFP) - 

As soon as Turkish warplanes began bombing raids over Afrin on Saturday, terrified residents of the Syrian Kurdish enclave dashed to take cover in the cellars of their homes.

They had been bracing for a Turkish assault over the past week as Ankara escalated its rhetoric against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which controls the area.

"My four-year-old son is terrified every time he hears the sound of an airplane," said Nisrin, a housewife in Afrin who asked that her real name not be used.

"What crime did he commit, that he has to live in terror? This boy who has seen nothing of life yet?"

When the bombing began, Nisrin and her relatives rushed to hide in a lower level of the building, following instructions issued by the Kurdish authorities.

"We'd prepared our basements to protect our children and young people, and also stocked up on essentials like milk and medicine for the children and elderly, who can't handle this," Nisrin added.

Turkey and allied Syrian rebels on Saturday began an air and ground operation, dubbed operation "Olive Branch", aimed at ousting the YPG from Kurdish-majority Afrin.

A reporter inside Afrin contributing to AFP said residents quickly disappeared from the town's streets when the Turkish bombardment began at around 4:30 pm local time (1430 GMT).

YPG military vehicles took their place instead.

Local authorities enforced a curfew on Saturday, banning civilians from gathering in public and shuttering businesses and schools.

- 'Psychological warfare' -

"I don't know how to describe what I felt in the moments after Turkish warplanes began flying over Afrin and bombing civilians," said Randa Mustafa, a teacher in her 40s.

"The children are scared. Our men, women, and young people are peaceful. What crime did they commit?"

She accused Turkey of trying to sow discord among Syrians and waging "psychological warfare" against the people of Afrin.

Ankara vehemently opposes the YPG, accusing it of being the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) which has waged a rebellion in southeast Turkey for more than three decades.

The YPG's political branch, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), said on Saturday that Turkish bombing had wounded 25 civilians.

Turkey said earlier there were casualties, but that they were all Kurdish militants.

"We took steps to protect civilians, including digging bomb shelters and tunnels to use during emergency situations," said Heve Mustafa, who co-chairs Afrin's executive council.

"The biggest fear we have is that international forces on the ground in Syria which claim they're here to fight terrorism and find a solution to the Syrian problem will turn a blind eye," Mustafa said.

Several world powers have deployed forces in northern Syria, among them regime ally Russia. There are also troops from the US-led coalition fighting jihadists.

Russia said on Saturday it was withdrawing its soldiers from areas around Afrin.

- 'No choice' but resistance -

"The only option the autonomous administration has is resistance. Nothing else. We will not allow a Turkish occupation of Syrian territory," Mustafa said on Saturday.

A YPG statement echoed this stance, saying the Kurdish fighters had "no choice" but to fight back against Turkey's "barbaric aggression".

Afrin was long known for its abundant olive groves and fragrant soap, and as the first area where Kurdish authorities implemented the self-rule model they later used across parts of northern Syria.

After regime forces withdrew from Kurdish-majority areas in 2012, local authorities took over and established autonomous institutions, including schools and police forces.

Jamil, a 22-year-old communications engineer in Afrin, said he could not believe Turkey had dubbed its assault operation "Olive Branch".

"(Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan called it 'Operation Olive Branch' precisely because Afrin is the town of olives and peace," he said.

"But by giving it this name, he proved to us that he doesn't want peace or security."

© 2018 AFP