Turkey pounded Kurdish militia in northeast Syria for a second day on Thursday, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee and killing at least dozens of people in a cross-border assault, Reuters reports.
The offensive against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) led by Kurdish YPG militia began days after US President Donald Trump pulled American troops out of the way, enabling Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to launch military action.
Turkey’s Defense Ministry said 228 militants had been killed so far in the offensive. Kurds said they were resisting the assault.
At least 23 fighters with the SDF and six fighters with a Turkish-backed Syrian rebel group had been killed, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war.
The Observatory said Turkish forces had seized two villages near Ras al-Ain and five near the town of Tel Abyad, while a spokesman for Syrian rebel forces said the towns were surrounded after fighters seized the villages around them.
According to a senior Turkish security official, the armed forces struck weapons and ammunition depots, gun and sniper positions, tunnels and military bases.
Jets flew operations up to 30 km into Syria – a limit which Turkey’s foreign minister said Turkish forces would not go beyond. A Reuters journalist saw shells exploding just outside Tel Abyad.
Ankara brands the YPG militia as terrorists because of their ties to militants who have waged an insurgency in Turkey.
The SDF said Turkish air strikes and shelling had also killed nine civilians.
The International Rescue Committee said 64,000 people in Syria have fled since the campaign began. The towns of Ras al-Ain and Darbasiya, some 60 km to the east, have become largely deserted.
The SDF have been the main allies of US forces on the ground in the battle against Islamic State since 2014. They have been holding thousands of captured IS fighters in prisons and tens of thousands of their relatives in detention.
SDF forces were still in control of all prisons with Islamic State captives, a senior US State Department official said in a briefing with reporters on Thursday.
The United States has received a high-level commitment from Turkey on taking responsibility for Islamic State captives but has not yet had detailed discussions, the official said.
US lawmakers and media have said Trump essentially gave Erdogan the green light for Turkey’s military to go into northeast Syria but the official disputed that.
“We gave them a very clear red light, I’ve been involved in those red lights and I know the President did that on Sunday,” the official said.
US Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican who usually backs Trump, has been one of the most outspoken critics of the president’s decision to withdraw US troops from northeastern Syria. He unveiled a framework for sanctions on Turkey with Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen.
“If there is any measure taken against us, we will retaliate and respond in kind,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said, adding that “nothing will come of these sanctions.”
After the UN Security Council met to discuss the fighting, the US ambassador to the United Nations said Turkey faces unspecified “consequences” if it did not meet its pledge to protect vulnerable populations or contain Islamic State fighters.
Later, the US State Department official said the United States would penalize Turkey if it engages in any “inhumane and disproportionate” moves against civilians.
That would include “ethnic cleansing, it would include in particular indiscriminate artillery, air and other fires directed at civilian population,” the official said. “That’s what we’re looking at right now, we haven’t seen significant examples of that so far.”
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called for an emergency meeting of the coalition of more than 30 countries created to fight Islamic State.
The coalition “needs to say today what are we going do, how do you, Turkey, want to proceed and how do we ensure the security of places where fighters are held? Everything needs to be on the table so that we are clear,” Le Drian said on France 2 television.
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