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Turkish forces push deeper into Syria as Kurds fight back

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AKCAKALE, Turkey — Turkey defied mounting international criticism Thursday as it deepened its offensive against Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria, while deadly rocket fire from inside ­Syria menaced Turkish towns.

The escalating violence sent thousands of civilians on both sides of the border fleeing their homes, and aid agencies warned of a humanitarian crisis, with the United Nations reporting more than 70,000 people already displaced in northeast Syria.

The Syrian National Army, a group of rebel factions backed by Turkey, said it had seized a dozen villages in northeast Syria as part of the ground offensive.

Kurdish authorities in northern Syria said as many as 10 civilians were killed by Turkish forces, while mortar and rocket fire from Syria left six people dead inside Turkey, local officials said.

Syrian residents described mayhem as civilians fled clashes on the border.

“I had to leave with only the clothes I had on me,” said Mikael Mohammad, a clothing shop owner from Tal Abyad, which lies a quarter-mile from the Turkish frontier. Mohammad and his family left the town as soon as the bombardment started Wednesday evening. He said they slept outside in a rural area some 25 miles farther south.

“The shelling is barbaric and indiscriminate. We spent the night in the open air among scorpions and snakes,” he said. “Everything I rebuilt in the last few years, I may have just lost again.”

In Akcakale, a Turkish town on the border with Syria, dozens of cars transporting civilians filed out of town Thursday, all but emptying the area as ambulances transporting wounded residents raced by. 

The exodus from Akcakale was silhouetted by smoke. Gray plumes rose from a deadly mortar strike in the center of town. Two civilians were killed — a 9-month-old infant named Muhammed Omar and Cihan Gunes, who worked in the local tax office, officials said.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Thursday that Turkish forces had killed more than 170 “terrorists,” referring to Kurdish fighters, since the operation began. But it was not possible to confirm that death toll, and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are allied with the United States, said they could not provide a count of their own.

President Trump announced early this week that he would withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria in the face of the Turkish offensive, but he came under heightened pressure Thursday to take action in response to the escalating conflict. He said in an afternoon tweet: “Send in thousands of troops . . . hit Turkey very hard financially . . . or mediate a deal between Turkey and the Kurds.”

At the U.N. Security Council, Turkey came under harsh criticism from European ambassadors, who warned of an ensuing humanitarian crisis and the revival of Islamic State militants. But the council failed to agree on a statement condemning Turkey’s military operation.

Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the Trump administration does not endorse Turkey’s military action and warned of unspecified “consequences,” but she stopped short of condemning it.

Erdogan lashed out at critics of the military campaign, saying Turkey would establish a “safe zone” where millions of Syrian refugees could return. Speaking in the capital, Ankara, he also said that Turkish forces would eliminate the threat from Islamic State militants in the region. Urgent concerns remain about what would happen to thousands of Islamic State fighters held in Kurdish-run prisons if Turkish forces overrun the region.

“We will do whatever needs to be done” to prevent an Islamic State resurgence, he said, adding that Turkey would either imprison, deport or rehabilitate the militants and their families. 

Tens of thousands of Islamic State members and their families were detained in northeast Syria after the SDF earlier this year seized the last of the territory held by the militant group. Diplomats and military experts have warned that the offensive could undermine security at the prisons and camps, allowing the Islamist militants to escape. The SDF said in a statement Thursday that Turkish shelling had targeted a prison holding Islamic State fighters in the northeastern city of Qamishli. 

Erdogan’s insistence that Turkey could contain the militants put few other countries at ease. The U.S. military is taking custody of dozens of “high-value” Islamic State detainees to prevent their escape or release during the Turkish incursion, according to U.S. officials. 

Iraq, meanwhile, is sending military units to reinforce its border with Syria to prevent any new influx of Islamic State fighters, according to Maj. Gen. Tahseen al-Khafaji, a spokesman for the Iraqi Joint Operations command. 

“There is a high concern from the Iraqi side about the ground offensive in Syria,” he said in a telephone interview. Iraq was coordinating with the United States, Russia, Turkey and the SDF, he said, “to protect our security” and to prevent a repeat of the Islamic State rampage through Iraq that began in the summer of 2014.

Turkey has long promised to target Kurdish forces in Syria’s northeast. It views Syrian Kurdish fighters as terrorists because of their links to Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a decade-long battle in southeastern Turkey for greater autonomy.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey intended to push 30 kilometers, or nearly 19 miles, into Syrian territory, but no further. That was the range of rockets fired from Syria into Turkish territory, he said. In a few places, the Turkish army might go a kilometer past the limit, he added. “The purpose of the operation is to remove terrorists from the area,” he said.

Akcakale was mostly empty on Thursday, except for shopkeepers and destitute Syrian refugees with nowhere else to go. But the parking lot at the hospital was filled with police officers and worried relatives of people who were wounded in mortar strikes. 

At one point, a grief-stricken woman ran screaming through the lot as a man in a blue shirt tried to catch her and another man, with a patch of blood on his polo shirt, watched nearby.

Suddenly, blasts emanated from artillery pieces placed behind the hospital. Throughout the afternoon in Akcakale, artillery boomed. 

“Eighty percent of the town has left,” said Veysel Kilic, 25, a former soldier who sat on a corner with his friends, shortly after a mortar round landed a few hundred feet away, near the local cemetery. He was happy about the Turkish offensive, he said. “The soldiers are doing this for us, for our security,” he said, adding that he hoped the campaign would last only a week.

Across the border, in Tal Abyad, smoke rose in thick black columns, some of it from tires set alight to thwart Turkish drones. Doctors Without Borders reported that its hospital in Tal Abyad had closed after everyone fled and that the town was now deserted.

In Ras al-Ayn, 75 miles east of Tal Abyad, a man who identified himself only as Nawras, out of concern for his safety, said that residents suffered a night of intense shelling and that villagers fled when airstrikes resumed in the morning.

“People are still leaving Ras al-Ayn as we speak,” he said. “I’m being told that the city is still being targeted and that we should not consider going back for now.”

Cunningham reported from Istanbul. Sarah Dadouch and Asser Khattab in Beirut, Louisa Loveluck and Mustafa Salim in Irbil, Iraq, and Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report. 

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