AKCAKALE, Turkey (AP) – Turkish forces pushed deeper into northeastern Syria on Friday, the third day of Ankara’s cross-border offensive against Syrian Kurdish fighters that has set off another mass displacement of civilians and met with widespread criticism from the international community.
There were casualties on both sides and Turkey reported its first military fatality, saying a soldier was “martyred” in the fighting.Â
Earlier, at least six civilians were killed in Turkey and seven civilians have been killed in Syria since Ankara this week launched the air and ground operation into Syria’s northeast. The invasion came after President Donald Trump opened the way by pulling American troops from their positions near the border and abandoning U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters.
Trump’s unexpected decision came as he faces an impeachment inquiry at home. It drew swift criticism from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, along with many national defense experts who say it’s endangered not only the Syrian Kurds and regional stability but U.S. credibility as well. The Syrian Kurdish militia was the only U.S. ally in the campaign that brought down the Islamic State group in Syria.
Trump warned Turkey to act with moderation and safeguard civilians. But the barrages of the invasion so far showed little sign of holding back, and the operation drew widespread criticism.
In Syria, residents fled with their belongings loaded into cars, pickup trucks and motorcycle rickshaws, while others escaped on foot. The U.N. refugee agency said tens of thousands were on the move, and aid agencies warned that nearly a half-million people near the border were at risk – in scenes similar to those from a few years ago, when civilians fled the Islamic State group militants.
On Friday morning, plumes of black smoke billowed from the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad as Turkey continued bombarding the area.
The Turkish ministry statement that reported the death of a soldier also said three soldiers were wounded in the action but didn’t provide details. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said a total of 342 “terrorists” – Ankara’s parlance for Syrian Kurdish militiamen – were killed in the incursion so far. Those figures could not be independently verified.
Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish fighters terrorists linked to a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey and says the offensive is necessary for its own national security.
Turkish officials said the Kurdish militia has fired dozens of mortars into Turkish border towns the past two days, including Akcakale, killing six civilians, including a 9-month-old boy and three girls under 15. On the Syrian side, seven civilians and eight Kurdish fighters have been killed since the operation began, according to activists in Syria.
Mourners in the Turkish town of Akcakale carried the coffin Friday of the slain baby boy, Mohammed Omar Saar, as many shouted, “Damn the PKK,” in reference to the Kurdish insurgent group in Turkey that Ankara says is linked to Syrian Kurdish fighters.
The Turkish Defense Ministry said the offensive was progressing “successfully as planned.”
On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he’s worried the Turkish invasion in Syria could unleash the Islamic State group again.
Speaking during a visit to Turkmenistan, Putin said he doubts that the Turkish army has enough resources to promptly take control of IS prison camps, saying he fears the captured IS fighters who have been until now held by the Syrian Kurdish militia “could just run away.”
“We have to be aware of this and mobilize the resources of our intelligence to undercut this emerging tangible threat,” Putin said.
U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish forces had been holding more than 10,000 IS members captured during the war against the extremists in camps and detention centers in this part of Syria. But this week they said they are being forced to abandon some of those positions to fight the Turkish invasion.
Separately, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg urged Ankara to exercise restraint in its incursion though he acknowledged what he said was Turkey’s legitimate security concern about the Syrian Kurdish fighters.
In a joint news conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Stoltenberg also expressed worry that the Turkish offensive may “jeopardize” gains made against the Islamic State group in the war in Syria. Cavusoglu said Turkey expected solidarity from its allies.
“It is not enough to say you understand Turkey’s legitimate concerns, we want to see this solidarity in a clear way,” he said.
Cavusoglu has said the military intends to move 30 kilometers (19 miles) into northern Syria and that its operation will last until all “terrorists are neutralized.”
European Union Council chief Donald Tusk said Turkey’s operation in Syria is of “grave concern.” Abandoning the Kurdish fighters who have been crucial in the fight against IS “is not only a bad idea” but raises many “questions both of a strategic and moral nature,” Tusk said.
He said Erdogan’s threat to “open the gates” and let Syrian refugees flood into Europe was “totally out of place,” adding that the EU will never accept “that refugees are weaponized and used to blackmail us.”
A French official said Friday that sanctions against Turkey will be “on the table” at next week’s European Union summit, over Ankara’s incursion into Syria.
AmÃ©lie de Montchalin, the French secretary for European affairs, told France Inter radio that Europe should respond to what she described as a shocking situation against civilians and Europe’s Kurdish allies against IS in Syria.
European diplomats in Brussels have responded cautiously to the idea of sanctions on Ankara, though the invasion has met with unanimous criticism.
The Turkish assault aims to create a corridor of control along the length of Turkey’s border – a so-called “safe zone” – clearing out the Syrian Kurdish fighters. Such a zone would end the Kurds’ autonomy in the area and put much of their population under Turkish control. Ankara wants to settle 2 million Syrian refugees, mainly Arabs, in the zone.
The U.N. refugee agency said tens of thousands of people have fled their homes since Wednesday, while the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring group, put the figure at more than 60,000.
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed to this report.