Turkish forces push deeper into Syria, with deaths rising
AKCAKALE, Turkey (AP) — 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.
The latest attack hit the town of Suruc, and a child in the town of Ceylanpinar died of his wounds Thursday night, the Anadolu Agency reported.
On the Syrian side, seven civilians have been killed since Wednesday, activists said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said he doubts that 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 mobilize the resources of our intelligence to undercut this emerging tangible threat," 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.
In Washington, chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Defense Secretary Mark Esper "made clear" in a phone call Thursday with his Turkish counterpart that the U.S. opposes the incursion.
Esper told his counterpart that the military actions "place at risk" the progress made to defeat the extremists and he urged Turkey to stop its operation, according to Hoffman. Esper also said the incursion "risks serious consequences" for Turkey, and he expressed his concern that it could harm U.S. personnel in Syria.
Separately, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg urged Ankara to exercise restraint, although he acknowledged what he said was Turkey's legitimate security concerns about the Syrian Kurdish fighters.
In a joint news conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Stoltenberg also expressed worry that the Turkish offensive could "jeopardize" gains made against IS. Cavusoglu said Turkey expected solidarity from its allies.
"It is not enough to say you understand Turkey's legitimate concerns, we want to see this solidarity in a clear way," he said.
European Union Council chief Donald Tusk said Turkey's operation is of "grave concern." Abandoning the Kurdish fighters who have been crucial in the fight against IS "is not only a bad idea" but raises many "questions both of a strategic and moral nature," Tusk said.
He said a threat by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to "open the gates" and let Syrian refugees flood into Europe was "totally out of place," adding that the EU will never accept "that refugees are weaponized and used to blackmail us."
Amélie de Montchalin, the French secretary for European affairs, said sanctions against Turkey will be "on the table" at next week's European Union summit because of the incursion, telling France Inter radio that Europe should respond to what she described as a shocking situation against civilians and the Kurdish fighters in Syria.
European diplomats in Brussels have responded cautiously to the idea of sanctions, even though Turkey's actions have been met with near-unanimous criticism.
The Turkish assault aims to create a corridor of control along Turkey's border — a so-called "safe zone" — clearing out the Syrian Kurdish fighters. Such a zone would end the Kurds' autonomy in the area and put much of their population under Turkish control. Ankara wants to settle 2 million Syrian refugees, mainly Arabs, in the zone.
The U.N. refugee agency said tens of thousands of people have fled their homes since Wednesday, while the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring group, put the figure at more than 60,000.
Syrian Kurdish authorities evacuated people from the Mabrouka camp, located west of the town of Ras al-Ayn, because of artillery rounds falling in the area, according to the local Kurdish-led administration.
It was not immediately clear if there were any injuries in the camp for displaced residents, located 12 kilometers, or 7 miles, from the border.
Doctors Without Borders said the fighting has forced it to shut down one of the hospitals it supports in the border town of Tal Abyad that served more than 200,000 people. The violence forced most of the town's residents to leave, including the medical staff and their family, leaving the group little choice but to close the facility, according to the group, known by its French acronym as MSF.
It said aid groups had to suspend or limit operations in the crowded al-Hol camp, home to more than 70,000 women and children located 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Turkish border, as well as the Ain Eissa camp.
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed.