By ANNE BARNARD, HWAIDA SAAD and CARLOTTA GALL MARCH 3, 2018 The New York Times
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Dozens of pro-Syrian government fighters were killed in an assault by Turkish warplanes on the northwestern Syrian region of Afrin on Saturday, according to a local journalist and a militia spokesman.
Fighting has intensified in the region in the past few days, as Turkey has sent reinforcements to press its offensive against towns held by Kurdish groups. Just a day earlier, eight Turkish soldiers were killed, Turkey’s Defense Ministry said in a statement, and more were wounded.
Soldiers loyal to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria had entered Afrin, a Kurdish stronghold, last week to support the Kurdish militia known as the Y.P.G.
Turkey and its allied Syrian rebel fighters say the Y.P.G. is the focus of their operation, which began in January. That has put them at odds with forces loyal to Mr. Assad.
Saturday’s airstrike hit a camp in Kafr Jina, according to a spokesman for Y.P.G. forces in the area and a Kurdish reporter on the ground.
The reporter, Firhad Shami, who was in Kafr Jina, said that at least 40 fighters were killed in the airstrikes, though the exact number could not be confirmed.
“We managed to pull out 23 bodies. The rest are still in the bunker; the Kurdish Red Crescent couldn’t pull them all because of the shelling,” he said in a message.
It was the third time in 48 hours that Turkish warplanes had struck pro-government forces in Afrin.
By Saturday evening, the Syrian state news agency Sana had not confirmed that any pro-government forces had been killed in the region, only civilians who had died in an earlier strike.
“Forces of the Turkish regime and its mercenaries of the terrorist groups on Friday night targeted the Afrin area with all types of weapons, leaving 20 civilians martyred or injured,” Sana reported, calling the attack a “violation” of a new United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire.
Despite that, clashes have continued in Afrin and in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta where Syrian government forces are conducting airstrikes on residential neighborhoods, home to 400,000 civilians.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led, United States-backed alliance, said in a statement that Turkish airstrikes had targeted positions held by the Syrian Army’s “popular forces.”
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim of Turkey on Saturday said that his country’s forces had captured the strategically important town of Rajo from Kurdish forces.
“Afrin is surrounded,” Mr. Yildirim said, according to local news outlet Hurriyet. “We have cleared all nearby border areas of terror nests.”
Turkey views the Y.P.G.’s forces as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a group that has fought a decades-long insurgency in Turkey. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party is designated a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and Turkey. But the Y.P.G. has been an important ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.
Carlotta Gall contributed reporting from Istanbul and Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon.