Activists and Syrian Kurdish officials are reporting a large explosion outside a popular fast food restaurant in the city of Qamishli. (AP: ANHA)
Turkey stepped up its air and artillery strikes on Kurdish militia in north-eastern Syria on Friday, escalating an offensive that has drawn warnings of humanitarian catastrophe and turned Republican politicians against US President Donald Trump.
- Trump administration warns of “serious consequences” for offensive
- Turkey vows to continue until all Kurdish militia forces are “neutralised”
- Islamic State militants have escaped prison due to Turkish shelling
Mr Trump, whose order to pull back US troops from the border this week effectively triggered the invasion, said Washington would now seek to broker a truce.
Some 100,000 people have left their homes in north-eastern Syria with a growing number taking refuge in shelters and schools following this week’s Turkish military incursion in the region, the United Nations said.
“The humanitarian impact is already being felt. An estimated 100,000 people have already left their homes,” the UN said in a statement.
Turkish howitzers resumed shelling near the Syrian town of Tel Abyad.
(AP: Lefteris Pitarakis)
Plumes of black smoke billowed 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 Defence Ministry said.
Islamic State fighters escape prison amid the fighting
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies were deploying air strikes, heavy artillery and rocket fire.
Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said 342 “terrorists” — Ankara’s term for Syrian Kurdish militiamen — have been killed so far.
The Defence Ministry statement reported the death of two Turkish soldiers, with three wounded, but did not give details.
The figure could not be independently verified. Syrian activists say only eight fighters were killed.
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper told his Turkish counterpart that the incursion “risks serious consequences for Turkey”.
“We have not abandoned the Kurds,” Mr Esper said.
Turkey must help find a way to “de-escalate the situation before it becomes irreparable”, the Pentagon said.
Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack in the Syrian city of Qamishli which it said had targeted Kurdish militants.
Meanwhile, five IS militants broke out of a prison after Turkish shelling nearby, a Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) official said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had earlier said he doubted the Turkish army has enough resources to take control of prison camps in the region housing Islamic State detainees, and he fears the captured fighters “could just run away,” leading to a revival of the militant group.
“We have to be aware of this and mobilise the resources of our intelligence to undercut this emerging tangible threat,” Mr Putin said during a visit to Turkmenistan.
The Syrian Kurdish forces had been holding more than 10,000 IS members, but they said they are being forced to abandon some of those positions to fight the Turkish invasion.
Offensive to continue until all ‘terrorists are neutralised’
Turkey says the purpose of its assault is to defeat the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as an enemy for its links to insurgents in Turkey.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said the military intends to move 30 kilometres into northern Syria and that its operation will last until all “terrorists are neutralised.”
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 Islamic State group.
The SDF now holds most of the territory that once made up Islamic State’s “caliphate” in Syria, and has been keeping thousands of Islamic State fighters in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.
Turkey 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.
“What does Erdogan want from us?” asked one woman, referring to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as she and her family settled in a school the local authorities had turned into an emergency shelter.
“Is it all simply because we are Kurds?”
The Kurdish militia has fired dozens of mortars into border towns inside Turkey in the past two days, according to officials on the Turkish side.
They said at least nine civilians were killed, including a 9-month-old boy and three girls under 15.
A Turkish flag-draped mourner attends the funeral of ten-month-old Mohammed Omar Saar, killed during incoming shelling from Syria. (AP: Lefteris Pitarakis)