Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday he hoped Turkish forces would completely capture the northern Syrian town of Afrin by the evening, a day after his troops had encircled the town.
Speaking in Ankara, the Turkish president was quoted as saying by the AFP news agency that “We have got a little closer to Afrin. I hope that Afrin will, God willing, have completely fallen by the evening.”
However, the Turkish presidential office soon “clarified” Erdogan’s words to mean something substantially different.
“In the president’s speech the sentence ‘I hope that Afrin will have completely fallen by the evening’ should be understood as ‘the encirclement will have been completed by the evening’,” said a presidential source in a message to media, asking not to be named.
Erdogan also said civilians in Afrin were being escorted in cars through an evacuation corridor, as Turkish forces made substantial advances against Kurdish fighters in their nearly two-month-old offensive.
The YPG, the Kurdish force defending Afrin, dismissed Erdogan’s statements.
“It sounds like Erdogan is daydreaming when he says Afrin will fall tonight,” said Redur Khalil, a senior official in the YPG.
Turkey launched operation “Olive Branch” in January to clear the YPG from the Afrin enclave. Ankara says the YPG are a “terrorist” entity linked to the banned Kurdish PKK group, which has waged a decades-long conflict inside Turkey.
The YPG denies the links and has appealed for international help to stop Turkey’s advance. The US says it has no connection to YPG in Afrin, despite using its troops as its main ground force in the war against Islamic State in Syria.
Turkish military chiefs on Tuesday said they had “neutralised” 3,400 “terrorists” since launching “Olive Branch” in January. The YPG has dismissed the casualty figures while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has issued much lower numbers for deaths of Kurdish fighters.
The military statement made no mention of civilian casualties, and said only “”terrorists and shelters, gun emplacements, weapons, tools and equipment belonging to them have been targeted during the operation”.
About 350,000 people live in the town of Afrin, the capital of the Kurdish enclave of the same name.
Erdogan also said Turkey would crush Kurdish militants in northern Iraq.
“We are checking the terror nests in northern Iraq at every chance. Soon we will stomp very strongly on the terrorists there,” he said.
Erdogan’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said last week that Turkey and Iraq’s central government could start a joint military operation against Kurdish militants after Iraqi parliamentary elections scheduled for May 2018.
The Turkish air force regularly launch strikes against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has camps in the mountains of northern Iraq, near the border with Turkey.
France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, warned Turkey on Tuesday that concerns over security “absolutely do not justify” the scale of its offensive in Syria.
“Even if Turkey’s concerns over the border are legitimate… this absolutely does not justify the action by Turkish troops deep inside the Afrin area,” Le Drian told parliament.
“In no circumstances does it justify military operations that put civilian populations in danger,” he added, branding the situation in Afrin “critical”.