By Diyar Guldogan
Turkey is not "occupying" Syria's Afrin with its ongoing Operation Olive Branch, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday.
Addressing the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party’s provincial heads meeting in capital Ankara, Erdogan said: "We are not occupying Afrin. On the contrary, we are trying to make it a liveable place for the real owners while clearing out terrorists from there."
Turkey on Saturday launched Operation Olive Branch to clear PYD/PKK and Daesh terrorists from Afrin, northwestern Syria.
Erdogan said the operation was a "clear warning" to those who did not want to understand Turkey's determination in the fight against terrorism.
The president slammed those who wanted to see the operation as an "occupation movement".
He reiterated that the ongoing operation was directed "purely and simply" against terrorists.
"Here, I once again declare to world. Turkey's operation in Afrin purely and simply aims at the terrorist organizations and terrorists," Erdogan said.
343 terrorists 'neutralized'
Erdogan also said at least 343 terrorists had been "neutralized" since the beginning of the operation.
He added Ankara had been taking into consideration both the security of Turkish soldiers as well as the safety and property of the "innocent" civilians, which he said the terrorist organizations were using as human "shields" against Turkey.
"We will continue with Operation Olive Branch until it reaches its targets," he said.
He added Turkey will next clear terrorists from Syria's Manbij.
The president said he visited a military command center in the southern Hatay province on Thursday.
"I was pleased to see that there was not the slightest glitch in our operation, which is carried out in difficult terrain and under bad weather conditions," Erdogan said.
The Turkish president also criticized the U.S., saying the terrorist organizations in the region were moving around with American flags.
"Mr. President tells us, 'Do not criticize us that much'. All right, but, since we are strategic partners, how can a strategic partner do such a thing to its strategic partner," Erdogan asked, referring to U.S. President Donald Trump.
The U.S. has supported the PYD/PKK -- considered by Ankara as the Syrian offshoot of the PKK terrorist organization that has waged a more than 30-year war against the Turkish state. The terror campaign has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, including women and children.
American support for the terror group has long vexed Ankara as Washington views the PYD/PKK-led umbrella group SDF as a "reliable partner" in its fight against Daesh and continues to provide it with arms and equipment in the face of strong objections by Turkey.
According to the Turkish General Staff, Operation Olive Branch aims to establish security and stability along Turkish borders and the region as well as to protect the Syrian people from the oppression and cruelty of terrorists.
The operation is being carried out under the framework of Turkey’s rights based on international law, UN Security Council decisions, self-defense rights under the UN Charter and respect for Syria's territorial integrity.