UN report documents Turkey’s targeting of civilians in Afrin

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Syrian woman Raifa, wife of Mehdi Haymur, cooks in Afrin, on May 26, 2018. Displaced from their homes in Syria's Eastern Ghouta, families sought refuge in abandoned houses in the traditionally Kurdish town of Afrin. Afrin itself had been emptied of its residents just weeks earlier, after a brutal Turkish-led offensive forced tens of thousands to flee. / AFP PHOTO / Nazeer AL-KHATIB

The Turkish air force may have failed to take all feasible precautions prior to launching certain attacks, leading to the death of civilians during its attack on Afrin, United Nations human rights investigators concluded in a report on Wednesday, according to the Kurdistan 24 news website.

The report, based on 400 interviews, documented the aerial and ground attacks of the Turkish Operation Olive Branch that began on Jan. 20. It also documented human rights abuses by Turkish-backed rebels after Turkey occupied Afrin on March 18.

The report notes that the rebel factions took control of Afrin, after the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), “in an effort to avoid urban warfare and spare the civilian population, had relinquished control,” the UN report said.

The UN said the brunt of hostilities was “borne primarily by the more than 320,000 civilians residing in Afrin.”

The Turkish government, however, in a note to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, argued that “civilian structures” were never targeted, instead accusing the YPG of carrying out a “disinformation campaign.”

“Operation Olive Branch has shown to the entire world how a counterterrorism operation can be conducted without harming civilians and civilian infrastructure,” the Turkish government said.

However, the UN report confirmed several Turkish airstrikes which resulted in the loss of civilian lives.

The report noted how Turkey, on Feb. 22, targeted a convoy carrying hundreds of demonstrators, killing one and injuring 12.

Turkey claimed the convoy was carrying “terrorists, weapons and ammunition.” But investigators, after reviewing Turkish army drone footage, said the “presence of fighters, weapons or ammunition could not be verified.”

The UN concluded, after reviewing a substantial body of evidence, that the convoy “comprised activists, nurses, and a doctor, as well as demonstrators, including women and children.”

Moreover, the report said an airstrike on March 16 in the Al-Mahmoudiyah neighborhood of Afrin killed at least 20 civilians queuing up to leave the city.

The report also confirmed that Turkey hit Afrin’s main hospital on March 16, although the Turkish army at the time denied bombing it, releasing alleged drone footage.

The UN report noted that the attack killed at least nine civilians, including three women, and injuring another 20 more.

“No warnings were issued prior to the attacks. According to witnesses, there were no military installations within or near the hospital,” the report added.

In addition to the targeting of civilians by the Turkish army during the campaign, the report also documents war crimes by the armed groups that took over Afrin after March 18.

The rebels were “notorious for their arbitrary arrests and detention” in Afrin, the report said.

“Members of various armed groups repeatedly committed the war crime of pillaging in Afrin, further seriously contravening the right to enjoyment of possessions and property,” the report stated.

Moreover, there was looting of hospitals, churches and a Yazidi shrine. Yazidi religious sites were also destroyed in “attacks that appeared to have sectarian undertones.”

Apart from this, there were “patterns of house appropriations,” in particular from Kurdish owners who had fled clashes.

“Homes were then used by armed groups for military purposes, or as housing for fighters and their families,” the report said, adding that most of them were fighters and their families who were evacuated from eastern Ghouta.

The report concluded that if the groups were acting under the command of the Turkish army, “the violations committed may be attributable to Turkish military commanders who knew or should have known about the violations.”

In August, Amnesty International called on Turkey to “end violations by pro-Turkish armed groups, hold perpetrators accountable, and commit to helping Afrin residents rebuild their lives.”

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