BARDARACH, IRAQ – The United Nations on Saturday opened a new section of a camp for the displaced in Iraqi Kurdistan to host refugees fleeing Turkish troops in northeast Syria.
“Around 11,000 refugees are now living in Bardarach, which is at capacity,” said Rashid Hussein Rashid, spokesman for the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
“So we opened a new section of the Gawilan camp to host 310 refugees who arrived today from Syria,” Rashid added.
Gawilan camp has already been hosting 1,850 families who fled to Iraq when conflict first erupted in neighboring Syria in 2011.
Ankara and its Syrian rebel allies launched an operation on Oct. 9 against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey sees as a “terrorist” group for its links to the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The offensive has killed dozens of civilians, mainly on the Kurdish side, and prompted an exodus of tens of thousands, in the latest humanitarian crisis of Syria’s eight-year civil war.
Rashid said less than the normal number of refugees had crossed to Iraq on Saturday as Syrian government troops had moved into the area, blocking the refugees’ passage.
The Norwegian Refugee Council has said the number of cross-border refugees could swell to as much as 50,000.
Clashes in northeast Syria between pro-Ankara fighters backed by the Turkish Air Force and a Damascus-backed force led by Syrian Kurds left 15 dead on Saturday, a monitor said. Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said nine pro-Turkish fighters and six members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were killed in a zone between the towns of Tal Tamr and Ras al-Ain.
The Observatory said the Syrian government’s deployment there was its largest in years.
Turkey and Russia last week struck a deal in Sochi for more Kurdish forces to withdraw from the frontier on both sides of that Turkish-held area under the supervision of Russian and Syrian forces.
On Saturday, the Britain-based Observatory said some 2,000 Syrian troops and hundreds of military vehicles were deploying around what Turkey calls its “safe zone.”
Government forces were being accompanied by Russian military police, the Observatory said.
Moscow has said 300 Russian military police had arrived in Syria to help ensure Kurdish forces withdraw to a line 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the border in keeping with Tuesday’s agreement.
Under the Sochi deal, Kurdish forces have until late Tuesday to withdraw from border areas at either end of the Turkish-held area, before joint Turkish-Russian patrols start in a 10-kilometer (six-mile) strip there.
Ankara eventually wants to set up a buffer zone on Syrian soil along the entire length of its 440-kilometer-long border, including to resettle some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey.
The SDF has objected to some provisions of the Sochi agreement and it has so far maintained several border posts.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Saturday that Ankara would “clear terrorists” on its border if the Kurdish forces, which his country view as an offshoot of its own banned insurgency, did not withdraw by the deadline.