KILIS, Turkey (AP) - Intense clashes erupted Monday on a strategic hilltop in northwestern Syria as Kurdish forces tried to enter the area a day after it was captured by Turkish troops.
Turkish military officials cancelled a government-organized press tour to Bursayah Hill, separating the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin from the Turkey-controlled town of Azaz, due to what they described as “security concerns.”
Separately, in the nearby rebel-held province of Idlib, suspected Syrian government airstrikes killed at least 21 people and put a hospital out of order.
The violence has overshadowed a peace conference hosted by Russia that was due to open in Sochi on Monday. Russia, a key ally of President Bashar Assad, says it invited 1,600 representatives to the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue, but so far only the government and opposition representatives tolerated by it have shown up. The main Syrian opposition body has boycotted the talks.
The main Syrian Kurdish militia, which is fighting in Afrin and controls some 25 percent of Syrian territory, has also declined to attend, saying it holds Russia responsible for the Turkish offensive.
Alexander Lavrentiev, Russia’s envoy for Syria, downplayed the violence, saying the situation in Afrin has “somehow stabilized” and expressing hope that “potential provocations prior to and during the event won’t affect its outcome.”
“We still hope that common sense will prevail and that the leadership of the united Syrian opposition will still decide to attend the congress. This possibility has not been ruled out, and the invitations remain on the table,” he said, according to Russian state agency Tass.
The Turkish incursion began on Jan. 20, with Ankara saying it seeks to drive “terrorists” away from its border and create a safe zone in the area. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish militia in control of Afrin, the People’s Defense Units or YPG, an extension of the Kurdish insurgency within its borders.
On Monday, Turkish authorities said they had detained 311 people for allegedly engaging in “terrorist propaganda” through social media postings critical of the Afrin offensive. The Interior Ministry said the suspects, who are accused of supporting the Syrian Kurdish forces, were detained in the past week but did not provide further details.
The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders called the detentions a government “witch hunt against critics.”
Turkish troops and allied Syrian forces have met with stiff resistance as they try to push into Afrin, and the capture of Bursayah Hill marked their biggest advance since the start of the offensive. The operation has so far claimed the lives of 61 civilians in Afrin, three in Turkish towns along the border and five Turkish soldiers, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Turkish-led offensive has opened a new front in the civil war, which is far from over despite recent gains by Assad’s forces and the expulsion of the Islamic State group from nearly all the territory it once held.
The government is now focused on the northwestern province of Idlib, which is dominated by al-Qaida-linked militants and home to more than 2.6 million people, nearly half of whom have fled from other areas.
Volunteer first responders known as the White Helmets say the airstrikes on Monday hit the province’s largest vegetable market, in the town of Saraqeb. The Qasioun news agency, which covers events in opposition-held areas, said 14 people were killed. The Observatory, an opposition-linked group that monitors all sides of the conflict, also said 14 were killed, including six children.
Another two people, including a child, were killed in the attack on the hospital.
The activist-run Edlib Media Center posted photographs of the exterior of the damaged building. Videos of rescuers sifting through the rubble showed them emerging with a survivor, apparently a medic. Mohammed Abrash, a doctor in Idlib city, said the only hospital in Saraqeb was now out of order.
The government appears to have stepped up its bombing campaign in Idlib in recent days. The Observatory reported 90 airstrikes in Idlib on Monday alone, killing a total of 21 people. It said airstrikes on Sunday killed 17.
Sandy al-Obeid, a resident of Saraqeb, said she heard the attack on the market from her home and could see the plane from her window.
“When I finally fell asleep, I dreamt there were airstrikes and we were hiding. It turned out there were airstrikes. But now nightmares are confused with reality,” al-Obeid said in a series of text messages.
Near the capital, Damascus, activists reported government shelling of Harasta, in the rebel-held suburbs known as eastern Ghouta. Fighting has raged in the area over the last few days despite a cease-fire negotiated between Russia and the opposition.
Russia’s Defense Ministry on Monday called on the Syrian government to hold talks with the rebels in eastern Ghouta to allow for medical evacuations.
“A cessation of hostilities is the only chance and the only condition for political settlement in eastern Ghouta and in Syria on the whole,” it said.