Turkey stepped up its air and artillery strikes on Kurdish militia in northeast Syria on Friday, escalating an offensive that has drawn warnings of humanitarian catastrophe, Reuters reported.
The incursion, launched after US President Donald Trump withdrew US troops who had been fighting alongside Kurdish forces against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants, has opened a new front in the eight-year-old Syrian civil war and drawn fierce international criticism.
On Friday Turkish warplanes and artillery struck around Syria’s Ras al Ain, one of two border towns that have been the focus of the offensive. Reuters journalists heard gunfire there from across the frontier in the Turkish town of Ceylanpınar.
A convoy of 20 armored vehicles carrying Turkish-allied Syrian rebels entered Syria from Ceylanpınar. Some made victory signs, shouting “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) and waving Syrian rebel flags as they advanced towards Ras al Ain.
Some 120 kilometers (75 miles) to the west, Turkish howitzers resumed shelling near the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, a witness said.
Turkish forces have seized nine villages near Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad, said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war.
At least 32 fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and 34 Turkey-backed Syrian rebels have been killed in fighting, while 10 civilians have been killed, Abdulrahman said. The SDF said 22 of its fighters were killed on Wednesday and Thursday.
Turkey says it has killed hundreds of SDF fighters in the operation and that one Turkish soldier has been killed.
Turkey says the purpose of its assault is to defeat the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which it sees as an enemy for its links to insurgents in Turkey. It says it aims to set up a “safe zone” inside Syria, where it can resettle many of the 3.6 million refugees it has been hosting.
The International Rescue Committee aid group says 64,000 people in Syria have fled in the first days of the campaign.
The Kurdish YPG is the main fighting element of the SDF, which have acted as the principal allies of the United States in a campaign that recaptured territory held by the ISIL terrorist group.
A camp sheltering more than 7,000 displaced people in northern Syria is to be evacuated, and there are talks on moving a second camp for 13,000 people including the ISIL fighters’ families, after both were shelled, Kurdish-led authorities said.
Medecins Sans Frontieres said a hospital in Tel Abyad had been forced to shut after most of its staff fled from bombings over the past 24 hours.