The Latest: Toll from rebel shelling of Damascus reaches 9

The Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on the developments in Syria and Turkey’s offensive on the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin (all times local):

5:30 p.m.

Syrian state media says the death toll from rebel shelling of the capital has climbed to nine civilians, including a child.

State TV said Monday’s shelling hit residential areas and a bus station in Bab Touma, al-Shaghour and other neighborhoods. It blamed the shelling on rebels in the eastern Ghouta suburbs. Earlier reports said five civilians were killed.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition-linked group that tracks the conflict, also said nine people were killed in the shelling.

Government forces have surrounded eastern Ghouta, the last rebel stronghold near the capital, and regularly target it with shelling and airstrikes. The UN says some 400,000 civilians are trapped in eastern Ghouta with little or no access to basic services or aid.


4:45 p.m.

The United States is accusing Russia of “costing innocent Syrian lives” amid new reports of a suspected chemical attack in Syria.

Activists and rescue teams say the Syrian government launched an attack with suspected poisonous gas that affected nearly 20 civilians in a rebel-held suburb near Damascus.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert says Moscow’s “unwillingness or inability to restrain the Assad regime is costing innocent Syrian lives.” She says the United States has tried to hold responsible those using chemical weapons in attacks that “have killed far too many Syrians.”

Nauert is blaming Russia for thwarting efforts at the U.N. “to protect those civilian lives.” She’s calling on Russia to bring Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government to the table for talks on a political resolution to the civil war.


4:30 p.m.

Syrian state TV says shelling from rebel-held areas has killed at least five civilians and wounded more than eight in the capital, Damascus.

State television, citing a police statement, says Monday’s shelling struck the Bab Touma and al-Shaghour neighborhoods. It blamed the shelling on rebels in the eastern Ghouta suburbs.

Government forces have surrounded eastern Ghouta, the last rebel stronghold near the capital, and regularly target it with shelling and airstrikes. The UN says some 400,000 civilians are trapped in eastern Ghouta with little to no access to basic services or aid.


4:20 p.m.

The top U.N. official in Syria says the international body is ready to help people who might flee from the Afrin enclave, where Turkish troops are battling a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia.

Ali Al-Za’tari tells The Associated Press on Monday that it is not yet clear if people are fleeing the fighting in northwestern Syria. He says the U.N. is closely following the situation.

Turkey launched an offensive on Afrin Saturday, saying it aims to create a 30-kilometer (20-mile) deep “secure zone” along the border.

Turkey views the Kurdish militia that controls Afrin as a terror group because of its links to the Kurdish insurgency raging in Turkey’s southeast. The same Kurdish militia forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the main U.S. ally against the Islamic State group in Syria.

Humanitarian access to Kurdish-controlled areas from Turkey has been difficult.


4:15 p.m.

A Kurdish news agency says Turkey’s military is targeting Kurdish forces in eastern Syria, hundreds of miles from its main offensive against the Afrin enclave.

The Kurdish Hawar news agency said Kurdish fighters returned cross-border fire in the northeastern Hassakeh province, a predominantly Kurdish area bordering Iraq.

A Turkish official in southeastern Turkey could not confirm the report. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the skirmishes and said there were also reports of an exchange of fire to the west.

Turkey is waging a major offensive against the Afrin enclave in northwestern Syria, which is controlled by U.S.-allied Kurdish forces. Turkey views the Kurdish fighters as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency in its southeast.

The private Turkish Ihlas News Agency says Kurdish militants fired on soldiers in Ceylanpinar, bordering eastern Syria. Turkish forces responded with artillery and an announcement to stay indoors was aired over municipality speakers.


4 p.m.

Turkey’s president has said his country will “not take a step back” from its military operation on an enclave in northern Syria controlled by U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters.

Speaking in Ankara on Monday — the third day of the operation— President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey’s “fundamental goal” is ensuring national security, preserving Syria’s territorial integrity and protecting the Syrian people.

He said “we discussed this with our Russian friends and we have an agreement.” Erdogan slammed the United States for working with Syrian Kurdish forces instead of Turkey in combatting the Islamic State group.

The operation’s aim, according to Erdogan, is not to “occupy” any part of Syria but rather to conquer “hearts.” Once Afrin and Idlib to the west are secured, Erdogan said hundreds of thousands of Syrians could return to their homes.

Erdogan said: “The Afrin operation will end when it reaches its goals,”


1:45 p.m.

Syrian activists and rescue teams say the Syrian government has launched an attack with suspected poisonous gas that has affected nearly 20 civilians in a rebel-held suburb near the capital, Damascus.

The team of first responders known as White Helmets, or Syrian Civil Defense, says the attack hit a neighborhood in the Douma district early on Monday.

It says the rescuers evacuated more than 20 civilians, most of them women and children from the area, which they say was hit with suspected chlorine attack. The Ghouta Media Center, an activist-operated media, also claims the attack involved chlorine gas. Activists say a foul smell followed a series of bombings that hit the Douma neighborhood.

Such claims are not new but they are difficult to verify because of lack of chemical labs and independent testers. A U.N. inquiry panel had previously blamed the government for a number of chlorine and sarin attacks in Syria.

The Easter Ghouta suburb of Damascus has been under intensive attack, and the U.N. says government forces are holding 400,000 people under siege there.


12:30 p.m.

Russia is accusing the United States of fomenting separatism in the Kurdish enclave in Syria that has come under attack by Turkey over the weekend.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Monday that the fact that the United States has been “discouraging the Kurds from dialogue” with the Syrian government and “fomenting separatist sentiment” among them shows “lack of understanding of the situation or a deliberate provocation.”

Lavrov said Moscow views the Kurds as an important party of talks on the future of a post-war Syria and that their voice should be heard. He, however, called on all parties in the ongoing conflict to Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Turkey on Saturday launched an offensive aimed at ousting the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia from the enclave of Afrin, heightening tensions in the Syrian conflict and threatening to further strain ties between NATO allies Turkey and the U.S.


10:30 a.m.

Syria’s Kurdish militia says it has repelled Turkish troops and their allies from villages they seized during the Turkey-backed offensive against the enclave.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday that the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia has waged a ferocious counteroffensive, repelling Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters from two villages they briefly captured

The Observatory says Turkey-backed troops opened two new fronts on the third day of the offensive, attempting once again to enter Afrin in northwestern Syria.

The Kurdish militia, known as People’s Defense Units or YPG, says it’s clashing with the Turkish troops northwest of Afrin.

Turkey considers the YPG a terror organization because of its affiliation to its own Kurdish insurgency. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to expand the operation.


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