AKCAKALE, Turkey — Turkish forces faced fierce resistance from U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters on the third day of Ankara’s offensive in northern Syria, as casualties mounted, international criticism of the campaign intensified and estimates put the number of those who fled the violence at 100,000.
Later Friday, an explosion was reported in northern Syria near an outpost where U.S. troops are located, but none of the Americans were hurt, according to a U.S. official and a Syria war monitor. It was unclear whether it was from artillery or an airstrike, and it was the first time a coalition base was in the line of fire since Turkey’s offensive began.
Turkey said it captured more Kurdish-held villages in the border region, while a hospital in a Syrian town was abandoned and a camp of 4,000 displaced residents about 7 miles from the frontier was evacuated after artillery shells landed nearby.
Reflecting international fears that Turkey’s offensive could revive the Islamic State group, two car bombs exploded outside a restaurant in the Kurdish-controlled urban center of Qamishli, killing three people, and the extremists claimed responsibility. The city also was heavily shelled by Turkish forces.
Kurdish fighters waged intense battles against advancing Turkish troops that sought to take control of two major towns along the Turkish-Syrian border, a war monitor said.
The U.N. estimated the number of displaced at 100,000 since Wednesday, saying that markets, schools and clinics also were closed. Aid agencies have warned of a humanitarian crisis, with nearly a half-million people at risk in northeastern Syria.
On Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump cleared the way for Turkey’s air and ground invasion after he announced his decision to pull American troops from their positions near the border, drawing swift bipartisan criticism that he was endangering regional stability and putting at risk the lives of Syrian Kurdish allies who brought down the Islamic State group in Syria.
Trump had said at the time that the estimated 1,000 U.S. troops were not in harm’s way from the Turkish offensive. Rami Abdurrahman, head of the war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the U.S. base was on a hill near the Kurdish-held town of Kobani, which had come under heavy Turkish fire.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Washington is “greatly disappointed” by the offensive, which has badly damaged already frayed relations with NATO-ally Turkey. In a strong statement of support for the Kurds, Esper insisted that “we are not abandoning our Kurdish partner forces, and U.S. troops remain with them in other parts of Syria.”
Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emphasized that U.S. forces are still working with Kurdish fighters.
Despite the criticism, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country “will not take a step back” from its offensive.
“We will never stop this step. We will not stop no matter what anyone says,” he said in a speech Friday.
Turkish troops and their allied Syrian opposition forces have advanced up to 5 miles into Syrian territory, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay told TRT World television. Turkey has said the military intends to move 19 miles into Syria and that its operation will last until all “terrorists are neutralized.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin said he doubted 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.
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. — (AP)