GAZIANTEP, Turkey -- Turkish-backed Syrian rebels marched into the center of the northern Syrian town of Afrin on Sunday, nearly two months after launching their offensive on the Kurdish enclave.
The advancing troops faced little resistance from the Kurdish militia, which retreated and vowed to turn to guerrilla tactics.
"Many of the terrorists had turned tail and run away already," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech in western Turkey announcing the capture.
The takeover dealt a blow to Kurdish aspirations for self-administration in Afrin and added to Turkey's growing footprint in Syria.
Turkey says the Syrian Kurdish militants, known as the People's Defense Units, are linked with terrorists with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party. The country has portrayed its offensive -- Operation Olive Branch -- as critical to its national security.
"In Afrin's center, it is no longer the rags of the terror organization that are waving but rather the symbols of peace and security," Erdogan said.
Erdogan has repeatedly said that Turkey will not allow a "terror corridor" along its border and has vowed to push east after Afrin. Erdogan threatened to move forces to Manbij, a Kurdish-run town where U.S. troops have also maintained a presence after the area was cleared of Islamic State militants in 2016.
Support of the Kurdish militia in its fight against the Islamic State extremist group in eastern Syria has strained U.S. relations with Turkey. In an attempt to prevent Turkey from pushing to the east, Washington began discussions to address Turkey's concerns about the Kurdish militia's presence in Manbij.
A Kurdish official Sunday said the fight against the Islamic State in northeastern Deir el-Zour province, where remnants of the terror group have remained, has been put on hold as the battle for Afrin unfolded.
In a news conference outside Afrin, Kurdish official Othman Sheik Issa said a new phase of the fight will begin against Turkey, threatening "hit and run tactics" to target Turkish troops and its allied forces.
"Our forces in all parts of Afrin will turn into a continuous nightmare for them," Issa said. "The resistance will continue in Afrin until it is all liberated and it goes back to its rightful owners."
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said nearly 200,000 people have fled the Afrin region in recent days amid heavy airstrikes, entering Syrian government-held territory nearby. Erdogan has said the people of Afrin will return.
The United Nations said local authorities had prevented many other residents from leaving, forcing civilians to hide in basements in the city.
It was unclear Sunday how many civilians remained -- or whether the thousands who had fled would be able to return.
Mohammad Atarib, a fighter with the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, said he encountered residents when he entered Afrin on Sunday.
"At first they were scared," he said. "But then they gave us water and food."
Free Syrian Army forces were widely criticized after footage emerged that appeared to show the fighters abusing and executing civilians during the operation.
But Turkish government spokesman Bekir Bozdag tweeted that Turkey would take steps to restore daily life and ensure access to food and health care.
"Our job is not done yet, we have a lot more work. But terror and terrorists in Afrin are over," he said.
In a statement Sunday, Turkey's military said its forces and allied fighters were sweeping the city for mines and homemade bombs. The military also posted footage of a soldier holding a Turkish flag over a local government building. Another image showed a soldier raising and saluting a Turkish flag over the city.
Issa, the Kurdish official, said more than 800 Kurdish fighters have been killed in the 58 days of fighting, and estimated that 500 civilians were killed. The Observatory puts the number of casualties at over 280 civilians, adding that more than 1,500 Kurdish fighters have been killed since Jan. 20. Turkey says it has taken all measures to avoid civilian casualties, and that the fighting has killed 46 Turkish soldiers.
Turkey fears the establishment of a Kurdish self-ruled zone in Syria that could inspire its own Kurdish minority to press for greater autonomy. A peace process with the Kurdistan Workers' Party collapsed in 2015, reigniting a conflict that has killed tens of thousands within Turkey's borders over more than three decades.
The Kurds are the largest stateless ethnic group in the Middle East, with some 30 million living in an area split among Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.
ASSAD VISITS TROOPS
In eastern Ghouta, more than 150 miles south of the fighting in Afrin, Syrian President Bashar Assad visited troops Sunday on the front line, hailing their recent advances as a part of a larger battle against global terrorism. Syria's government views all its opposition as terrorists.
"With every bullet you fire at a terrorist, you change the balance in the world," Assad said during the visit to the newly captured areas of eastern Ghouta, about a two-hour drive from the capital, Damascus. The visit was broadcast on state-run Al-Ikhbariya TV.
Assad's visit comes on the week the war enters its eighth year, a war that has devastated much of Syria and displaced nearly half of the population. What started as peaceful protests against his family's long rule turned into a civil war after a heavy crackdown. The government fought the opposition for years, using its air force and artillery and soliciting help from its Russian and Iranian allies, who threw their weight behind Assad.
Recapturing eastern Ghouta would mark the biggest victory yet for Assad in the country's civil war. The area has been under rebel control since 2012. It would also be the worst setback for rebels since the opposition was ousted from eastern Aleppo in late 2016 after a similar siege and bombing campaign.
Assad stood near a tank in the street and was surrounded by soldiers who cheered and pumped their fists in the air. Assad, who wore a suit with no tie, flashed smiles and stopped for chats with soldiers. Some soldiers posed with him, taking selfies. It was not clear where in eastern Ghouta Assad was.
Assad then climbed on top of a tank and looked around, before stepping down, also surrounded by soldiers.
He later went on to meet with a group of newly evacuated residents from eastern Ghouta.
The images were also posted on the presidency's official social media sites with the caption, "On the front lines in eastern Ghouta, President Assad with the heroes of the Arab Syrian Army."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Syrian government is now in control of over 80 percent of the area.
Information for this article was contributed by Zeynep Bilginsoy, Sarah El Deeb and staff members of The Associated Press; by Carlotta Gall and Anne Barnard of The New York Times; and by Erin Cunningham and Zakaria Zakaria of The Washington Post.
A Section on 03/19/2018
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