A church in a Syrian province under fire from Turkish troops has issued a plea for protection from the international community.

Pastor Valentin Hanan of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Afrin, north-western Syria, wrote in an email to his supporters on Sunday (21 January): “We are at this moment under heavy shelling, and Islamic groups are threatening to enter the area.”

Turkish aerial and artillery shelling has resulted in the deaths of 18 civilians, including two children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Over 200 families attend the Good Shepherd church, and Kurdish-majority Afrin has welcomed thousands of Syrians trying to cross the border into Turkey to flee civil war.

According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Turkish aerial and artillery shelling has resulted in the deaths of some 18 civilians, including two children, within the first 24 hours of Operation “Olive Branch”, and left others seriously wounded.

The observatory added that Turkish troops are working with “rebel and Islamic factions backed by Turkey”, who had together “almost besieged” the Afrin area.

A number of villages in the region have been captured by Turkish forces, according to Turkish media.

The Turkish military launched its Operation Olive Branch offensive on Saturday to oust from the region Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that it considers a terrorist group.

Fighting alongside members of the coalition-backed Free Syrian Army, the Turkish military aims to create a 30km “safe zone” within Syria to protect its border.

“We are determined, Afrin will be sorted out,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a live television broadcast in Ankara on Monday.

According to Al-Monitor, Turkey’s targeting of Afrin relates to the local population’s strong support for imprisoned Kurdistan Workers Party leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Turkey has been irked by the US-led coalition’s partnership with the mainly Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by the YPG, to set up a border force to patrol Syria’s borders with Turkey and Iraq, as well as lines between territory held by the SDF and that held by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.