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Shells Fired Into Turkey as Syria Offensive Extends Into 2nd Day

The New York Times logo The New York Times 4 days ago Carlotta Gall and Patrick Kingsley

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Video by Associated Press

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AKCAKALE, Turkey — Shells and rockets landed in several Turkish border towns on Thursday, killing four civilians, one of them an infant, and wounding 70, in a sharp escalation of the conflict between Turkey and the Kurdish-led militia that fought alongside American forces in the campaign against Islamist extremists in northern Syria.

The attack came as a Turkish offensive against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria entered its second day, with Turkish troops continuing an air and ground assault against the Kurdish groups, killing at least 23 Kurds, rights groups reported.

By Thursday morning, Turkey had conducted 181 airstrikes in the area, its Defense Ministry said. The Turks also used cranes to remove parts of a concrete border wall, allowing Turkish troops, Turkish-backed Syrian Arab rebels and military vehicles to enter Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria.

Turkey’s foreign minister, Mesut Cavusoglu, said that Turkish forces did not plan to go further than 18 miles deep into Syrian territory, a distance he said was needed to stop Kurdish fighters from firing missiles into Turkey.

Mr. Cavusoglu said that ultimately Turkey planned to seize a corridor stretching for hundreds of miles along the Turkish-Syrian border but he did not say when. “We will do that in time,” he said in an interview on Turkish television.

a train on a track with smoke coming out of it: Smoke billowed from targets in Syria bombed by Turkish forces on Thursday, in a photo taken from the Turkish side of the border. © Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press Smoke billowed from targets in Syria bombed by Turkish forces on Thursday, in a photo taken from the Turkish side of the border. Turkish military analysts said this week that the initial plan was to seize only a narrow area between the towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain.

Turkish-backed Syrian Arab rebel fighters said they had taken at least one formerly Kurdish-held village that lies just yards from the border.

On Thursday afternoon, Kurdish fighters appeared to return fire, as three sharp explosions in the border town of Akcakale filled streets around the town’s police headquarters with smoke, and sent pedestrians fleeing for cover and armored police vehicles barreling through the streets.

On both sides of the border, droves of civilians crammed into cars and pickup trucks search for safety from the fighting.

More than 60,000 Syrians in Kurdish-held territory have fled away from the border since Wednesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a conflict monitor based in Britain, and United Nations officials.

The fighting, which began Wednesday, marks a new stage in the eight-year-old Syrian civil war that began as a wave of protests against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, but which has since escalated into a jumble of overlapping conflicts involving foreign armies and an array of local militias including former Syrian government officers, Islamist extremists and Kurdish nationalists.

The United States joined forces with a Kurdish-led militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces, to clear northeastern Syria of militants from the Islamic State. Kurdish groups seized the opportunity to carve out an autonomous statelet in northeastern Syria, buttressing the southern Turkish border.

The Kurdish presence, abutting the Turkish border, enraged the Turkish government, which considers the Kurdish-led militia an enemy because of its ties to a Kurdish guerrilla force inside Turkey.

For several years, a small American force kept the peace between the Syrian Kurds and Turkey — until President Trump’s sudden decision on Sunday to pull American troops out of Turkey’s way, despite qualms from his own military officers and State Department officials, and criticism from Republican politicians.

a group of people on a dirt road: Turkish-backed Syrian Arab rebels head toward Tel Abyad, Syria, from the Turkish border town of Akcakale on Thursday. © DHA, via Associated Press Turkish-backed Syrian Arab rebels head toward Tel Abyad, Syria, from the Turkish border town of Akcakale on Thursday.

On Thursday afternoon, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey characterized the invasion as an attempt to preserve Syria’s long-term sovereignty and to clear the area of not just Kurdish fighters but also the remnants of the Islamic State.

‘‘The aim of Operation Peace Spring is to contribute to the territorial integrity and political union of Syria,” Mr. Erdogan said in a speech to his political party, using the Turkish military’s name for the invasion.

Mr. Erdogan dismissed concerns that the mayhem of the invasion would risk allowing thousands of Islamic State militants detained by the Kurdish-led militia to escape.

“We will keep in jail the ones who should be kept in jail and send the other ones to their countries of origin, if those countries accept them,” he said.

President Emmanuel Macron of France condemned the offensive on Thursday, calling for Turkey to end it “as quickly as possible.”

“Today Turkey is forgetting that the international community’s priority in Syria is the fight against Daesh and terrorism,” he said, using another name for the Islamic State, and adding that Turkey was risking a humanitarian crisis for “millions of people.”

“This risk of helping Daesh rebuild a caliphate, and this humanitarian risk, is Turkey’s sole responsibility before the international community,” he said.

Turkish officials said that 109 Kurdish fighters had been killed since Wednesday, though independent monitors reported lower estimates. At least 16 Kurds were reported to have been killed, one monitoring group said.

Numan Kurtulmuş, Recep Tayyip Erdogan standing in front of a crowd: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, center, in Ankara on Thursday. © Adem Altan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, center, in Ankara on Thursday.

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces were killed in the area of Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain in northeastern Syria, along with six attackers of unknown identity, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. American troops had withdrawn from both areas on Monday.

a group of people sitting on a bench: Syrian Arab and Kurdish civilians arriving in the town of Al Hasakah, Syria, after fleeing bombardment. © Delil Souleiman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images Syrian Arab and Kurdish civilians arriving in the town of Al Hasakah, Syria, after fleeing bombardment.

An additional 33 members of the Syrian Democratic Forces were wounded, the monitoring group said.

Days after greenlighting the Turkish operation, Mr. Trump condemned it as a “bad idea” on Wednesday. He said this week that Turkey, a NATO ally, would face economic punishment if it did anything he considered “off limits.”

In a statement on Wednesday, Turkey’s defense minister, Hulusi Akar, said the aims of the operation were to “ensure the security of our borders and the safety of our people,” naming Kurdish militias and Islamic State militants as threats.

Six hours of airstrikes ensued, followed by Turkish and rebel Syrian Arab ground troops crossing the border into Syria.

Reached by telephone inside Syria, a member of a Syrian Arab militia said a brigade of around 1,000 Turkish-backed Syrian fighters had taken the town of Al Yabseh after meeting no resistance.

“We captured the town an hour ago without any clashes,” said Al-Hareth Dahdouni, 31, a representative of the Shami Front, a Turkish-backed Syrian militia. “The town was totally empty. It is just one minute away from the border.”

The fighting threatens to create a humanitarian crisis for hundreds of thousands of people who have been cut off from Syrian assistance for years. Most rely on the Kurdish forces and aid groups for basic services. Civilians jammed roads while fleeing with their possessions on Wednesday.

The impact of the assault was “a lot worse, a lot more dramatic” than aid organizations had feared, Panos Moumtzis, the United Nations humanitarian aid coordinator in Syria, said in a telephone interview. “The protection of civilians is now the biggest concern.”

Some aid organizations had already evacuated personnel from the area, he added.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians “are now in harms way,” Filippo Grandi, head of the United Nations refugee agency, said in a statement.

Henrietta Fore, the executive director of UNICEF, said Wednesday that the military escalation would have “dramatic consequences” on the ability to provide aid.

“I urge all parties to protect children and the civilian infrastructure on which they depend, in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law,” she said. “The use of explosive weapons in populated areas causes unacceptable harm to children.”

Inside Turkey, families also began loading up their belongings and leaving town to travel away from the border. “We are going west because people were hit on the east side of town,” said Ayse Kaya as she piled her family into a small car.

But others, including Syrian refugees now living in Turkey, were less concerned.

“I have seen this before, I am from Syria, I am going to prepare a shisha,” said Mustafa Ali, an elderly man in a long cotton robe, referring to a traditional waterpipe. “I came from Aleppo, I saw many of these in Aleppo. I am going to prepare a pipe at home.”

Mr. Ali also expressed support for the Turkish operation, which he hoped would allow Syrian Arabs to regain control of Kurdish-held territory. “What we need is for Turkey to clean our land and then we can go back to our land,” he said.

Carlotta Gall reported from Akcakale, and Patrick Kingsley from Istanbul. Daniel Victor contributed reporting from Hong Kong, Karam Shoumali from Berlin, Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon, Aurelien Breeden from Paris, and Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva.

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