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Turkey’s military operation against Efrin has begun, defense minister says

Nurettin Canikli says shelling has started but Turkish troops have not crossed the border

Updated January 19

Turkey’s military operation against the Kurdish-controlled Efrin region of Syria has “de facto” begun, defense minister Nurettin Canikli said.

“The operation has actually started de facto with cross-border shelling, except there is no border crossing,” Canikli said. “When I say ‘de facto’, I don’t want it to be misunderstood, it has begun without border crossings.”

“All terror networks and elements in northern Syria will be eliminated. There is no other way,” Canikli said.

Heavy Turkish shelling early in the day was reported.

The pro-government Daily Sabah reported Canikli as saying that Russia will withdraw military assets from the region, but that talks are continuing regarding the operation.

“Russia is taking steps to move its forces in Afrin away from the areas where there might be clashes,” Ahmet Berat Conkar, head of  the Turkish delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, told Al Jazeera.

Update January 19, 19:30 GMT Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters that reports of a Russian withdrawal were incorrect.

“These reports were later refuted,” Lavrov said at a United Nations press conference.

In the afternoon, Anadolu reported that around 1,000 YPG fighters moved from Ayn Issa to the border town of Tel Abyad, north of Raqqa, as well as other points near the border after U.S. reconnaissance in the area.

There were a number of unconfirmed reports of shelling after dark in the east and west of Efrin, as well as near Al Bab.

The YPG claimed to have repelled a Turkish armored vehicle advance into Efrin.

Turkey views the predominantly Kurdish YPG and its linked PYD political party which control Efrin as extensions of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a decades-long insurgency mainly in Turkey’s majority-Kurdish southwest. The PKK is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union, among others, but the YPG is not so designated by the U.S. or E.U. The YPG makes up the backbone of the U.S.-led Coalition supported Syrian Democratic Forces fighting Islamic State.

Turkish officials have been threatening an operation in Efrin for months, but the situation escalated this week after an official from the Coalition told The Defense Post that it was working with the SDF to set up a 30,000 strong Syrian Border Security Force. On Wednesday, Turkey’s national security council said steps should be taken “immediately and resolutely” to defeat threats from Syria.

YPG Commander Sipan Hemo on Tuesday said the force “will strongly respond to whoever attacks and threatens Afrin, Rojava or anywhere else, let it be Erdogan or someone else. This is a legitimate right and our duty which we will duly perform.”

Turkey’s Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar and the Director of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) Hakan Fidan met Russian defense minister Sergey Shoygu in Moscow on Thursday to discuss the operation.

Russia has a military base at Kafr Jana and controls the air space over Efrin, so Turkey won’t be able to launch an air offensive without Moscow’s approval.

On Thursday, Syria’s deputy foreign minister and permanent representative to the United Nations Faisal Mekdad said the Syrian government will respond to Turkish “aggression” in Efrin and will destroy air targets in Syrian airspace.

Also on Thursday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called on Turkey “to not take any actions of that sort.”

“We don’t want them to engage in violence but we want them to keep focused on ISIS,” Nauert said at a press briefing.

MoreU.S. backtracks on Syrian ‘border guard’ plan after Turkish threats to attack Efrin

Turkey installs remote weapons system on border

Meanwhile, Turkey has installed and activated an electronic system security along a 20 km (12.4-mile) section of of its border with Efrin, the first stage in a plan to cover the entire border with Syria, Anadolu reported an unnamed source as saying.

Turkey has already built a concrete wall along much of its 911-km (566-mile) border with Syria.

Developed by the Undersecretariat for Defence Industries, the Kayi Border Security System project features sensors and cameras to detect approaching drones, vehicles or people, above or below ground. The system includes Aselsan’s Stabilized Advanced Remote Weapon Platform which automatically targets perceived threats, but requires an operator to open fire, the report said.

This story is developing.

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