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Defense Minister: Turkey De Facto Starts Offensive Against Kurdish Enclave

Turkey’s long-awaited military operation against Kurdish enclave Afrin has de facto begun, the Turkish defense minister said on Friday, with the Turkish artillery units ramping up cross-border shelling of the Kurdish-held areas in northern Syria.

“The operation has actually started de facto with cross-border shelling,” Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli said on Friday in a televised interview with pro-government A Haber. “When I say ‘de facto,’ I don’t want to be misunderstood. It has begun.”

He vowed the eradication of all terror elements in northern Syria. “There is no other way.”

Turkey has stepped up shelling of the villages near Afrin and Kobane.

On Friday, Turkey moved 20 buses of Free Syrian Army fighters from Kilis to northern Syria to deploy them in a possible ground assault.

Russian FM Rejects Reports of Withdrawal from Afrin

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed media reports of withdrawal of Russian forces from Afrin. On Friday, pro-government Turkish media outlets and several local sources on the ground claimed that Russia has pulled out its forces from a base operated by Russians to a safer place to avoid accidental casualties during Turkish offensive.

It was read as a Russian green light to the Turkish assault. Mr. Lavrov refuted media reports.

He also accused the U.S. of creating alternative structures in the north of Syria.

Late on Friday, the Turkish artillery units intensified its shelling of the rural of Afrin.

The military assault also revealed cracks within Turkey’s political landscape. Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu voiced his opposition to a costly military endeavor.

“If diplomacy is used, an agreement is reached, and aerial support is also provided, the problem can be solved. Otherwise, the problem would grow bigger and its cost for Turkey would be hefty,” the Hurriyet Daily News quoted the CHP chairman as saying.

Meral Aksener, the leader of newly founded Good Party, also lambasted the government for warmongering and chauvinism.

She called on ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to send its own militia to Afrin in a mocking way. The government faces accusations of forming an armed militia to crush political opponents in case of an anti-government unrest.

The government, however, stood its ground, rejecting the opposition charges of adventurism. “If provocative fire comes from Afrin against Turkey, we can not ignore that.  If we don’t take action, history would judge us,” Deputy Prime Minister Hakan Cavusoglu said at a party meeting on Friday.

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