The Latest: Syrian president visits troops in eastern Ghouta

BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on the Syria conflict (all times local):

5:05 p.m.

Syrian state-run TV is carrying images of President Bashar Assad visiting troops on the front line in the newly captured areas of eastern Ghouta, near the capital Damascus.

Al-Ikhbariya TV broadcast the still images Sunday of Assad standing near a tank and surrounded by soldiers on a street in eastern Ghouta, the region near Damascus where a Syrian offensive has been underway over the past month. It was not clear where in eastern Ghouta Assad was. He was talking to the troops.

Earlier, state media said Syrian troops had entered Saqba, a town in a southern pocket of eastern Ghouta. It was the latest town to be captured by the Syrian troops and allied militia in a swift advance over the last few days. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Syrian government is in control of over 80 percent of the area, which has been a rebel stronghold since 2012.


3:35 p.m.

A Syrian Kurdish official says the war with Turkey has now entered “a new phase” of guerrilla warfare after Turkish troops and allied forces entered the Syrian town of Afrin.

Turkey announced Sunday it has entered the town of Afrin, nearly two months after it began its offensive on the district with the same name. Tens of thousands of residents fled the advancing Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters backed by intense airstrikes.

Kurdish officials and a war monitor say some pockets of resistance remain in the town of Afrin but the Kurdish militia, known as YPG, has largely withdrawn.

Othman Sheikh Issa, an official from the town of Afrin, said in a press conference Sunday that the Turkish offensive aims to clear the town of its Kurdish population.

Speaking from near Afrin in a press conference, Issa said the war against “the Turkish occupation” will change from a direct confrontation to guerrilla warfare, “hit and run tactics,” until the liberation of Afrin. He said the Kurdish militia remains present in Afrin area and will target the Turkish military and its allied Syrian troops at every chance.

“Our troops will turn into a continuous nightmare for them,” Issa said.


A spokesperson for the U.S-backed Kurdish-led forces fighting Islamic State militants says the battle against the extremists in northeastern Syria is on hold given the Turkish offensive on a Kurdish enclave to the area’s west.

Lailawa Abdullah said in a statement Sunday that the campaign against IS in northeastern Deir el-Zour province has been halted because fighters from the U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have pulled out to join Kurdish fighters in the northwestern district of Afrin. Turkey has been waging an offensive against Afrin since January and announced on Sunday that it has seized the town center.

Abdullah says IS is still present in a small area of the oil-rich northeastern Deir el-Zour, and that the fight in Afrin will prolong the group’s presence in the country’s north. She added that IS has already carried out a number of attacks on SDF posts previously liberated in the province.

US officials have said they fear the Afrin offensive may divert attention from the anti-IS battle.


1:50 p.m.

A senior Syrian Kurdish official says Kurdish fighters have withdrawn from Afrin after Turkish troops and allied forces pushed into the town center.

Salih Muslim, a senior official living in exile in Europe, tweeted Sunday that the withdrawal from Afrin doesn’t mean his group has given up, saying “the struggle will continue and the Kurdish people will keep defending themselves.”

Turkey said its forces and allied Syrian fighters have seized full control of Afrin, the target of a two-month-old offensive. Turkey views the Kurdish militia as a terrorist group because of its links to outlawed Kurdish insurgents inside Turkey.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said pockets of Kurdish fighters refused to pull out with the rest of the militia and are still fighting.


12:45 p.m.

A Syrian rebel group says it is in negotiations with the United Nations to arrange for a cease-fire and ensure the evacuation of wounded and ill civilians from the besieged eastern Ghouta region just outside the capital.

Wael Olwan, spokesman for the Faylaq al-Rahman group, said Sunday the “serious” talks are not aimed at evacuating able-bodied civilians from the region, something the Syrian opposition views as forcible displacement.

Syrian government forces launched a major offensive in eastern Ghouta on Feb. 18 and now control over 80 percent of the regions. Tens of thousands of civilians have fled in recent days.

Syria’s state-run Al-Ikhbariya TV on Sunday broadcast footage of government forces rolling into Saqba, a town in eastern Ghouta controlled by Faylaq al-Rahman.


11:45 a.m.

The Russian military says more than 25,000 people have fled Syria’s besieged eastern Ghouta region in single day.

Maj. Gen. Vladimir Zolotukhin is quoted by Russian news agencies as saying they left Sunday through the town of Hamouria.

The departures add to tens of thousands who have left in the past few days as Russian-backed Syrian troops have squeezed the rebel bastion just outside Damascus. Some 1,400 people have been killed in the past month.

Zolotukhin works with the Russian center for reconciling Syria’s warring parties. He said the center is distributing bedding and food to those fleeing, who are being forced into government-held regions.

Russia has been waging an air campaign in Syria on behalf of President Bashar Assad’s forces since 2015.


11 a.m.

A senior Syrian Kurdish official has denied Turkey’s claim to have captured the northern Syrian town of Afrin, saying fighting is still underway.

Hadia Yousef told The Associated Press on Sunday that the Kurdish militia evacuated civilians from the town because of ongoing “massacres” by Turkish and allied forces. Tens of thousands have fled Afrin in recent days as Turkish forces and allied Syrian fighters have advanced.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey-backed Syrian forces have taken full control of the town. Turkey’s military said it is combing the town for land mines, and tweeted a video showing Turkish soldiers in the town’s center.


10:15 a.m.

Turkey’s president says allied Syrian forces have taken control of the town center of Afrin, the target of a nearly two-month offensive against a Kurdish militia.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan says the Syrian fighters, supported by Turkish armed forces, seized control of the town center early Sunday. He says many of the Kurdish fighters have fled.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the Turkey-backed forces have taken control of half the town, with heavy fighting still underway.

Turkey views the Kurdish forces in the Afrin enclave along the border as terrorists because of their links to the Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey.

Turkish troops along with Syrian opposition fighters launched a cross-border offensive on Jan. 20. Thousands of civilians have fled in recent days amid heavy airstrikes.


10 a.m.

A Turkish news agency and Syrian activists say Turkey-backed forces have reached the center of the Syrian town of Afrin, the target of a nearly two-month-old Turkish offensive against a Syrian Kurdish militia.

Turkey views the Kurdish forces in the Afrin enclave along the border as terrorists because of their links to the Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey.

Turkey’s private Dogan news agency on Sunday reported that the Turkish-backed Syrian fighters “established control” in the town center. Footage showed armed men walking among derelict buildings amid sporadic gunfire.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the Syrian fighters entered the town with Turkish forces amid intensive airstrikes. Thousands of residents have fled in recent days.

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