Turkey steps up offensive against Kurdish forces in Syria

Turkish ground troops have stepped up their offensive against Kurdish forces in north-eastern Syria, seizing villages and continuing an aerial bombardment of Syrian towns close to the border.

Bombing near residential areas had forced 64,000 people to flee, said the International Rescue Committee, citing UN data. The Kurdish Red Crescent, a local humanitarian organisation, said 10 civilians had been killed in the past 24 hours. Children were among the dead and wounded, according to videos and photographs posted on social media by activists.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, said 109 militants had been killed in the operation against Kurdish forces, which Ankara accuses of terrorism. The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces said three fighters had died.

The SDF, armed and equipped by the US and other western allies to battle Isis, the Sunni jihadi group, in north-east Syria, are fighting back against the Turkish advance. Two civilians were killed by rocket and mortar fire from Syria that hit the Turkish border town of Akcakale, according the region’s governor, including a nine-month-old baby boy.

More than a dozen other civilians were hurt when mortar fire hit four Turkish towns, Anadolu news agency said.

Ankara has said it wants to push Kurdish fighters that it considers terrorists away from its borders and create a safe zone that Syrian refugees in Turkey can return to. But the long-anticipated offensive has sparked an international backlash, amid concerns over the threat to civilians and Kurdish forces — which have helped the international fight against Isis — and fears that the operation could enable the resurgence of the jihadist group.

The Kurds were left even more isolated on Thursday evening, when the Syrian regime in Damascus said it would not start talks with the SDF. Faisal Maqdad, foreign minister, said Bashar al-Assad’s government “won’t accept any dialogue or talk with those who had become hostages to foreign forces”, referring to the SDF’s alliance with the US and other western countries.

SDF officials had said they hoped Russia could broker talks with Damascus as they tried to find new allies to help shield them from Ankara.

Mr Erdogan has reacted angrily to European criticism, reiterating his threat to let Syrian refugees enter Europe if Brussels continued to oppose his military actions. “If they try to describe our operation as an occupation, our work is easy. We’ll open our gates and send you 3.6m refugees,” Mr Erdogan said in a speech to members of his political party. The EU has called on Turkey to stop the military incursion.

Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, told the broadcaster CNN Turk that the incursion would not go further than 30km from the Turkish-Syrian border. “When we go 30km deep in the safe zone, terror there will be removed,” he said.

The attack, which began on Wednesday, came days after US troops left the border area, giving an apparent green light for the Turkish operation. President Donald Trump has threatened to “destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if Ankara takes actions he deems “off-limits”. He has also said Ankara must take responsibility for Isis captives, previously seen as the responsibility of Kurdish fighters.

Two state department officials said on Thursday evening that Mr Trump had asked diplomats to attempt to arrange a ceasefire between Turkish and Kurdish forces. The officials added that there had been “various diplomatic exchanges that President Erdogan has in various ways been involved in” since the phone call between the Turkish leader and Mr Trump on Sunday.

One official said that if Ankara were to take any action that was “disproportionate, inhumane or otherwise goes against the lines the president has in his own mind”, then Washington would be prepared to impose “significant” economic cost. One red line would include “indiscriminate” fire at civilians, the official said.

The US military has already moved some foreign Isis fighters who were being held by Kurdish forces in north-east Syria out of the country, concerned that they might escape in the wake of the Turkish military incursion.

“In case the Kurds or Turkey lose control, the United States has already taken the two Isis militants tied to beheadings in Syria . . . out of that country and into a secure location controlled by the US,” Mr Trump wrote in a tweet early on Thursday.

An American defence official confirmed that the US had taken custody of two “high value” Isis prisoners from the SDF and taken them out of Syria.

Two other US officials confirmed on Thursday evening that the SDF was still in control of all facilities holding Isis prisoners.

One official said that while Washington had obtained “high level commitments” from Ankara that Turkish forces would take responsibility for Isis detainees in areas they entered, there had not been “detailed discussions”.

The Washington Post had reported that US forces had taken over custody of about 40 men accused of fighting with Isis. The group once controlled territory the size of Britain straddling Iraq and Syria, killing, raping and enslaving people as part of their campaign to create a so-called Islamic State.

The SDF has warned that Isis could take advantage of the Turkish incursion to stage jailbreaks. The SDF is spearheaded by Kurdish fighters belonging to the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which is closely linked to a militant group that has perpetrated terror attacks in Turkey.

The military assault was accompanied by a domestic crackdown in Turkey on criticism of the operation. A prosecutor in Ankara opened an investigation into whether the leaders of the opposition People’s Democratic party, whose base is largely Kurdish, and three more of its lawmakers had disseminated terrorist propaganda and insulted the government over their criticism of the operation, the state-run Anadolu said.

The editor of the opposition BirGun newspaper was briefly detained on the accusation of inciting hatred through social media postings. The managing editor of opposition news site Diken was also later detained.

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