The Kurds, who recaptured swathes of northeastern Syria from Islamic State with the backing of the United States, say the Turkish assault could allow the jihadist group to re-emerge
Turkey intensified its air and artillery strikes in northeast Syria yesterday, escalating an offensive against Kurdish militia that has drawn warnings of humanitarian catastrophe and turned some Republican lawmakers against US President Donald Trump.
The Kurds, who recaptured swathes of northeastern Syria from Islamic State with the backing of the United States, say the Turkish assault could allow the jihadist group to re-emerge.
In its first big attack since the assault began, Islamic State claimed responsibility for a deadly car bomb in Qamishli, the biggest city in the Kurdish-held area, even as the city came under heavy Turkish shelling.
Five Islamic State fighters fled a jail there, and foreign women from the group being held in a camp torched tents and attacked guards with sticks and stones, the Kurds said.
The Turkish incursion, launched after Trump withdrew US troops who had been fighting alongside Kurdish forces against Islamic State, has opened a new front in the eight-year Syrian civil war and drawn fierce international criticism.
A war monitor gave a death toll approaching 100 from the first days of the assault. The United Nations said 100,000 people had fled their homes.
Fending off accusations he had abandoned the Kurds, who are loyal allies of the US, Trump suggested Washington could mediate in the conflict. He also raised the possibility of imposing sanctions on Turkey, a Nato ally, a move demanded by Republican congressional critics of his policy.
Trump's defence secretary, Mark Esper, told a briefing that the US had not abandoned the Kurds. US officials had urged Turkey to halt the assault, Esper said, warning of "dramatic harm" to bilateral relations.
Yesterday, Turkish warplanes and artillery struck around Syria's Ras al Ain, one of two border towns that have been the focus of the offensive, now in its third day.
Reuters reporters heard gunfire there from across the frontier in the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar.
Hundreds of kilometres further east along the frontier, a car bomb blew up outside a restaurant in Qamishli as the city came under fierce Turkish shelling. Kurdish authorities said the bomb killed three civilians and wounded nine. Islamic State claimed responsibility, saying it had targeted Kurdish fighters.
A convoy of 20 armoured vehicles carrying Turkish-allied Syrian rebels entered Syria from Ceylanpinar. Some made victory signs, shouting "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest) and waving Syrian rebel flags as they advanced towards Ras al Ain.
Some 120 km (75 miles) to the west, Turkish howitzers resumed shelling near the town of Tel Abyad, a witness said. The Kurdish fighters called it the most intense fighting in three days of battles there.
Overnight, clashes erupted along the entire 400 km stretch of border from Ain Diwar at the Iraqi frontier to Kobani. "The whole border was on fire," said Marvan Qamishlo, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Turkish forces have seized nine villages near Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad, said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war. It reported at least 41 fighters with the SDF, 34 Turkey-backed Syrian rebels and 17 civilians had been killed.
Turkey says two Turkish soldiers have been killed. Turkish authorities said two people were killed and three wounded by mortar shelling in the border town of Suruc, raising the death toll to nine civilians killed on the Turkish side.
A Kurdish official who oversees aid work in northeast Syria, Khaled Ibrahim, said water to Hasaka city and nearby areas was cut by Turkish shelling that damaged a pumping station. It had provided safe water for at least 400,000 people, Unicef said.
The monitor said four civilians were killed in Tal Abyad when an air strike hit the car in which they were fleeing the fighting, while another three were shot dead by snipers around the border town, reports AFP.
That brings the civilian death toll to 17 on the Syrian side, while 17 have also been killed in Turkey.
That included eight civilians killed in a Turkish border town late last night in what the local governor's office said was a Kurdish mortar attack.
According to the Observatory, 54 SDF fighters have also been killed while Turkey has reported the deaths of four soldiers.
Outgunned Kurdish forces were putting up stiff resistance but experts predict they will not hold out very long without outside assistance.
The Observatory and a Kurdish military source said several Arab families in the border area had sided with Turkey, raising sleeper cells to attack from behind SDF lines.
Ras al-Ain, Tal Abyad and other border towns between them have been almost emptied of their population in a huge wave of displacement.
Most of the 100,000 people the United Nations confirmed Friday had been displaced travelled east towards the city of Hasakeh, which has not been targeted by Turkey.
"What does Erdogan want from us?" asked one woman, 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?"
Erdogan wants to create a buffer between the border and territory controlled by Syrian Kurdish forces, who have links with Turkey's own Kurdish rebels.
He also plans to use the strip, which he envisions will be about 30 km deep and is mostly Arab, as an area in which to send back some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees who live on Turkish soil.
The violence was wreaking havoc across northeast Syria.
One charity closed down a hospital it supported in Tal Abyad because the staff had fled and shelling led the Kurdish authorities to transfer an entire camp of people who had been displaced earlier in the Syrian war.
Aid groups have warned of yet another humanitarian disaster in Syria's eight-year-old war if the offensive was not stopped.
France, which was the US’ top partner in the anti-IS coalition, has threatened sanctions against Nato member Turkey.
Turkey is still far from having reached the goals of its military invasion but the risk appears to be growing that detained IS fighters could break free.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said he doubted Turkey would be able to ensure IS prisoners stay behind bars.
"I'm not sure whether the Turkish army will be able to take this under control – and how soon," he said. "This is a real threat to us."
Kurdish officials said five IS prisoners managed to escape from a Qamishli facility housing mostly foreign jihadists after shelling struck nearby.
The attack, which targeted a restaurant in the town centre, was claimed by IS, which has taken responsibility for a string of such attacks in Qamishli and elsewhere recently.
France called for a meeting of the anti-IS coalition to discuss growing fears that the jihadist organization could regroup if Turkey's invasion creates a security vacuum.
According to the Kurdish administration, some 12,000 men are held in seven detention centres across Kurdish-controlled areas.
The US already plucked two of the most high-profile IS jihadists to have been captured alive and spirited them out of Syria.