By Mehmet Emin Caliskan
AFRIN, Syria (Reuters) – A day after Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies seized control of Afrin, a Turkish aid group started distributing relief supplies in the town centre on Monday, but residents continued to leave after widespread reports of looting.
Triumphant Syrian rebel fighters stood on a fallen statue, firing shots in the air, while military vehicles patrolled streets still littered with the debris from Turkey’s eight-week offensive to drive out Kurdish YPG fighters.
Shops were closed and some people left for villages outside Afrin, the main town in a pocket of Kurdish-controlled territory in northwest Syria. One resident said the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army rebel fighters who swept into Afrin on Sunday morning had been looting shops and homes.
“The Free Syrian Army came and entered into Afrin and supposedly we were going to be safe. But it turned out to be the opposite,” said the man, who did not give his name.
“The Free Syrian Army looted our cars, looted our houses, looted our shops. It has become like we are all homeless (even) in our houses. No food, no drink, no security.”
Syria’s foreign ministry, in a letter to the United Nations published by state media, said Afrin residents’ belongings were looted and their houses destroyed in the Turkey-led campaign.
An FSA spokesman in the region was not immediately available for comment.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman said Ankara was taking reports of looting in Afrin seriously. “We are looking into the incidents. Apparently they have happened. Some groups apparently did not follow the orders that were given by their commanders,” Ibrahim Kalin told CNN.
Another man in Afrin, loading mattresses, carpets and other goods onto the back of a tractor trailer, said his family moved to the town from Bulbul, 30 km (20 miles) away, when Turkey launched its air and ground offensive in January.
“The bombardment started so we fled to Afrin. Now we are returning from Afrin to our home because it’s safer,” he said.
The United Nations said two thirds of 323,000 residents had fled the wider Afrin region since the start of Turkey’s campaign to drive out Kurdish YPG fighters, who it says are an extension of Kurdish militants waging a prolonged insurgency in southern Turkey.
It appealed for urgent supplies to “stem the catastrophic situation” for tens of thousands of people in Afrin and in Ghouta, where Syrian government forces are fighting to crush the last major rebel-held enclave on the edge of the capital.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on Monday for greater access to the civilian population of Afrin, saying that Turkey’s Red Crescent lacked credibility among the Syrian Kurds after the Turkish military operation.
Turkey, however, has promised to support people in Afrin and on Monday its emergency relief agency AFAD was distributing aid in the centre of the town.
“Since yesterday when the Turkish Army and Free Syrian Army entered here our duty started for the humanitarian affairs,” said AFAD’s director Mehmed Gulluoglu.
“Today we are here for need assessment and also for the first distribution. We are distributing food, hygiene kits and some prepared food and some blankets any case.”
(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut, Writing by Dominic Evans, Editing by David Dolan, William Maclean)