Turkey insists 'won't stay' in Syria's Afrin


Istanbul (AFP)

Turkey on Monday insisted pro-Ankara forces did not plan to remain in Afrin as occupiers after they ousted Kurdish militia from the northern Syrian city.

Syrian rebels backed by the Turkish army on Sunday drove the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) out of their former stronghold of Afrin near the Turkish frontier.

But Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag, the government's top spokesman, said there was no plan to remain in the city, even as officials warned the offensive could expand eastwards.

"We are not staying permanently in Afrin. We are not an occupier at all," Bozdag told reporters in televised comments in Istanbul.

Turkey sees YPG as a Syrian offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), whose insurgency has claimed tens of thousands of lives since 1984.

Most of Afrin's 350,000 residents have fled since Turkey and the allied Syrian rebels launched an air and ground offensive on January 20 to root out the YPG.

The YPG is seen by the United States as a key player in the fight against Islamic State jihadists. But Turkey brands it a terrorist group.

"The objective of our operation is to cleanse the region of terror, to restore peace, trust and stability in a strong way, and to return the region to its rightful owners," Bozdag said.

The capture of the city is seen a major step forwards for Turkey as it seeks to bolster its control along the border in northern Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly said that after taking Afrin, Turkey's offensive would expand to key border towns controlled by the YPG right up to the Iraqi frontier.

These would include Manbij, the next main YPG-held town east of Afrin -- a particular flashpoint as there is a US military presence there.

Erdogan has also threatened to then move on to Kobane -- of symbolic importance as it was the epicentre of a struggle with Islamic State (IS) jihadists -- and then Qamishli which is seen as the main town of the YPG-controlled region.