Turkish forces pushed deeper into northeastern Syria on Friday, the third day of Ankara’s offensive against U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters, as casualties mounted, international criticism of the campaign intensified and thousands of civilians fled the violence.
Turkey said it captured more Kurdish-held villages in the border region, while a camp for displaced residents about 12 kilometers (7 miles) from the frontier was evacuated after artillery shells landed nearby amid intense clashes. Aid agencies have warned of a humanitarian crisis, with nearly a half-million people at risk near the border.
U.S. President Donald Trump cleared the way for Turkey’s air and ground assault after he pulled American troops from their positions near the border, drawing swift bipartisan criticism that he was endangering regional stability and abandoning Syrian Kurdish forces that brought down the Islamic State group in Syria.
Trump has warned Turkey to act with moderation and safeguard civilians, and the Pentagon said the operation is a threat to progress in combatting IS militants and a potential threat to U.S. troops in Syria.
Plumes of black smoke billowed Friday from the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad as Turkey continued bombarding the area in an offensive that was progressing “successfully as planned,” the Turkish Defense Ministry said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said the military intends to move 30 kilometers (19 miles) into northern Syria and that its operation will last until all “terrorists are neutralized.” NATO member Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish fighters to be terrorists linked to a Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey and says the offensive is a counterterrorism operation necessary for its own national security.
The Defense Ministry statement reported the death of two Turkish soldiers, with three wounded, but did not give details. Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said 342 “terrorists” — Ankara’s term for Syrian Kurdish militiamen — have been killed so far. The figure could not be independently verified. Syrian activists say only eight fighters were killed.
The Kurdish militia has fired dozens of mortars into border towns inside Turkey in the past two days, including Akcakale, according to officials in two provinces on the Turkish side. They said at least nine civilians were killed, including a 9-month-old boy and three girls under 15.
Mourners in Akcakale carried the coffin of the slain boy, Mohammed Omar Saar, as many shouted, “Damn the PKK!” referring to the Kurdish insurgent group in Turkey linked to Syrian Kurdish fighters. The PKK is considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and other countries.
Story by The Associated Press