At least 160,000 civilians have been displaced in the week since the start of Turkey’s military operation in northeastern Syria, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Tuesday.
Reports of additional people on the move have given rise to fears that the actual number of people displaced since the incursion started on October 9 could be higher.
More than 275,000 people have fled their homes, Reuters reported, quoting the region’s Kurdish-led authority as saying.
Rami Abdulrahman, a representative from the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told NBC News on Tuesday that around 250,000 people have been forced from their homes, calling the move a “catastrophic civilian displacement.”
To date, the displacements have happened mostly in the towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn in northeast Syria, according to the UN. These are the two towns on which Turkey’s military operations have focused.
The offensive has worsened an already dire humanitarian situation in the region, contrary to the discourse by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan whose stated aim with the operation is to create a “safe zone” for the resettlement of 3.6 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey.
“My administration concluded that the international community was not going to act, so we developed a plan for northern Syria. In line with that plan, Turkey last week launched Operation Peace Spring to end the humanitarian crisis and address the violence and instability that are the root causes of irregular migration in our region. Absent an alternative plan to deal with the refugee crisis, the international community should either join our efforts or begin admitting refugees,” Erdogan said on Monday.
Besides the continuing displacement, authorities have also reported ongoing hostilities in the affected areas.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Tuesday that it had been verifying a number of civilian casualties each day since the Turkish offensive began last week as a result of airstrikes, ground-based strikes, and sniper fire.
On Saturday, two pieces of video footage were widely shared on social media, allegedly showing summary executions carried out by the Ahrar al-Sharqiya militias, which are backed by Turkey.
On the same day fighters belonging to the same armed group also executed a well-known Kurdish female politician, Hevrin Khalaf, and her bodyguards.
“Under international human rights and international humanitarian law, summary executions are serious violations – and may amount to a war crime. Turkey could be deemed responsible as a State for violations committed by their affiliated armed groups, as long as Turkey exercises effective control over these groups or the operations in the course of which those violations occurred,” said the UN branch in its statement on Tuesday.
The office urged Turkish authorities to launch an independent investigation into both incidents.
The UN commissioner also said they were receiving reports of other attacks on medical facilities and civilian infrastructure, including power lines, water supplies, and bakeries.
US President Donald J. Trump also acknowledged on Tuesday that Turkey’s action was “precipitating a humanitarian crisis and setting conditions for possible war crimes.”
Besides “safe zone” formation, Ankara aims to remove the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters from areas close to its border.
Turkey considers the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has waged a decades-long war within the country.
The Turkish operation was launched last week on Wednesday soon after the US announced it was withdrawing its troops from the northeastern region, a move that was decried at home and abroad as a betrayal of the Syrian Kurds who were once US ally in the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS).
The international world has urged Turkey to exercise restraint, Erdogan has vowed not to back down from the ongoing operation.