Turkey renews shelling of advancing Kurdish positions in Syria


Turkey shelled advancing Kurdish fighters in Syria for a third day Monday and a suspected Russian air raid on a hospital killed at least seven people, in mounting violence ahead of a hoped-for cease-fire.

Ankara and Moscow traded accusations over their military entanglement in Syria, prompting Washington to caution both countries against any “escalation.

The war of words and increasing violence on the ground in Syria have dampened hopes that a proposed cessation of hostilities will take hold this week.

On Monday, suspected Russian airstrikes hit a hospital in Idlib, northwest Syria, supported by the medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

MSF confirmed the incident, without assigning blame, saying seven people had been killed and at least eight more were missing, presumed dead.

The strikes devastated the hospital, half of which collapsed in the attack, spilling twisted metal, cinderblocks and other detritus into the surrounding area.

Turkey, for its part, resumed its shelling of Kurdish-led forces in several parts of Aleppo in northern Syria, alarmed by their recent advances against mostly Islamist rebels.

Ankara accuses the Kurdish forces of links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an outlawed movement that has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.

The Observatory, a Britain-based monitor, said at least two children were killed in Monday’s shelling, and an AFP journalist on Turkey’s border said Turkish howitzers opened fire for around 20 minutes from the Akcabaglar region near a crossing with Syria.

But despite the shelling, the coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was advancing inside the key rebel-held town of Tal Rifaat, the Observatory said.

The town, barely 20 km (12 miles) from the Turkish border, is held by an alliance of mostly Islamist rebels and one of their few remaining bastions in the area.

The Observatory said SDF fighters now controlled more than 70 percent of the town, with heavy fighting ongoing in its north and northeast.

The SDF has already seized the nearby Minnigh airbase from rebel forces and severed the road between Tal Rifaat and the key rebel-held town of Azaz on the border with Turkey.

Turkey fears the Kurds will be able to create a contiguous Kurdish territory just across the border in northern Syria.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned Monday that Ankara “will not let Azaz fall” to the SDF, adding “the necessary intervention will be made.

The situation is a major headache for Washington, which has backed the Kurds in their battles against the Islamic State group despite the discomfort of fellow NATO member Turkey.

In recent days, Washington has warned the Kurds not to “take advantage” of the situation in Aleppo to seize new territory.

Turkey is also a key member of the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State in Syria, and is allowing coalition planes to fly sorties from its Incirlik base.

Ankara’s shelling has prompted criticism from Damascus, which has urged the U.N. Security Council to take action.

Turkey on Monday also denied claims it had sent troops into northern Syria and rejected reports it was planning a ground intervention.

Its shelling adds to an increasingly complicated situation in Syria, where Russian forces are also waging an air campaign in support of President Bashar Assad.

Moscow says the strikes target Islamic State and other “terrorists” but rights groups accuse it of causing disproportionately high civilian casualties.

The MSF-supported hospital in Idlib is one of several health facilities Russia is accused of having struck since its aerial campaign began Sept. 30.

MSF said those killed in the strikes were five patients, a caretaker and a guard, adding that an unknown number of patients were also missing.

“The destruction of the hospital leaves the local population of around 40,000 people without access to medical services in an active zone of conflict,” said MSF Syria operations chief Massimiliano Rebaudengo.

The Observatory also reported 10 civilians, including three children, were killed in suspected Russian strikes in Azaz and an area nearby.

The strikes in Azaz hit near a hospital, the monitor said.

The Russian strikes have allowed government troops to press a major operation in Aleppo that has virtually encircled rebels in the east of Aleppo city, as well as pushing them from much of the region north of the city.

They have angered Turkey, with Davutoglu on Monday issuing Russia a stark warning.

“If Russia continues behaving like a terrorist organization and forcing civilians to flee, we will deliver an extremely decisive response,” he said.

His comments escalated a war of words with Moscow, which earlier criticized Turkey’s shelling in Syria as “provocative” and said it backed raising the issue at the Security Council.

More than 260,000 people have been killed in Syria since the country’s conflict began with anti-government protests in March 2011.