Turkish forces target strategic hill near Syria's Afrin

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Turkish forces target strategic hill near Syria's Afrin
Isikli Tosun Baba, 60, dressed with a Turkish flag and holding one, chants patriotic slogans in support of the Turkish forces' offensive, codenamed Olive Branch in the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin, Syria, at he stands at the Oncupinar border crossing with Syria, known as Bab al Salameh in Arabic, in the outskirts of the town of Kilis, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

KILIS, Turkey (AP) — Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters were trying to capture a strategic hill in northwestern Syria on Sunday as their offensive to root out Kurdish fighters enters its second week.

Associated Press reporters in the Turkish border town of Kilis heard constant shelling and clashes as Turkish aircraft whizzed above and plumes of smoke rose in the distance.

The Kurdish militia and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported intense fighting on the Bursayah hill, which separates the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin from the Turkey-controlled town of Azaz. The clashes followed intense bombing in the area.

The Turkey-backed forces have been trying to capture the hill since the start of their offensive on Jan. 20, but have met with stiff resistance. The Kurdish militia known as the People’s Defense Units, or YPG, said Turkey sent reinforcements to the area following intense airstrikes.

Rami Abdurrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Turkish troops briefly seized the hill at the start of the campaign but lost it to Kurdish fighters hours later.

Abdurrahman said airstrikes landed near Afrin’s main dam for the second time since the offensive began. There were no immediate reports of damage to the 17 April Dam, which provides water and electricity to the enclave, home to hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom have fled from other parts of Syria.

The Observatory said it has documented the deaths of at least 42 civilians, 66 YPG fighters and 69 Turkey-backed Syrian fighters. Turkey says five of its soldiers and 16 allied fighters have been killed.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday the troops were close to capturing the hill, and again vowed to expand the operation eastward, toward the town of Manbij.

“The terrorists in Afrin and Manbij cannot run from the painful end that awaits them,” he said in a speech to party members in northern Turkey. The crowd responded by chanting: “Hit, hit! Let it reverberate and let (U.S. President Donald) Trump hear.”

Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist group because of its links to Kurdish insurgents fighting in Turkey. The YPG also forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed militia that drove the Islamic State group from much of northern and eastern Syria.

The United States has expressed concerns about the Turkish campaign, fearing it could distract from efforts to defeat IS and ensure the extremists do not regroup.

On Sunday, dozens of people gathered near the Kilis border crossing, chanting “God is great” and waving flags. One protester carried a flag with Erdogan’s picture. Public displays of support for the offensive have been widespread in Turkey, while critics have been detained.

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Associated Press writers Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contribute to this report.