AKCAKALE, Turkey (AP) — Turkey pressed its assault against U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in northern Syria on Thursday for a second day, pounding the region with airstrikes and an artillery bombardment that raised columns of black smoke in a border town and sent panicked civilians scrambling to get out.
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.
It was a wrenchingly familiar scene for many who had fled the militants of the Islamic State group only a few years ago.
The Turkish air and ground assault was launched three days after U.S. President Donald Trump opened the way by pulling American troops from their positions near the border alongside their Kurdish allies.
At a time when Trump faces an impeachment inquiry, the move drew swift criticism from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, along with many national defense experts, who say it has endangered not only the 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 for moderation during its assault and safeguard civilians. But the opening barrage showed little sign of holding back: The Turkish Defense Military said its jets and artillery had struck 181 targets so far.
More than a dozen columns of thick smoke rose in and around the town of Tel Abyad, one of the offensive’s first main targets. Turkish officials said the Kurdish militia has fired dozens of mortars into Turkish border towns the past two days, including Akcakale.
Turkish officials in two border provinces said mortar fire from Syria killed at least 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.
A Kurdish-led group and Syrian activists said that despite the bombardment, Turkish troops had not made much progress on several fronts they had opened. But their claims could not be independently verified.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said 109 “terrorists” were killed in the offensive, a reference to the Syrian Kurdish fighters. He did not elaborate, and reports from the area did not indicate anything remotely close to such a large number of casualties.
Erdogan also warned the European Union not to call Ankara’s incursion into Syria an “invasion.” He threatened, as he has in the past, to “open the gates” and let Syrian refugees flood into Europe.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the military intends to move 30 kilometers (19 miles) into northern Syria and that its operation will last until all “terrorists are neutralized.”
Meanwhile, the Kurdish forces halted all operations against IS in order to focus on fighting Turkish troops, Kurdish and U.S. officials said.
The Syrian Kurdish fighters, along with U.S. troops, have been involved in mopping-up operations against IS fighters still holed up in the desert after their territorial hold was toppled earlier this year.
Ankara considers members of the Kurdish militia to be “terrorists” because of their links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has led an insurgency against Turkey for 35 years. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people. The U.S. and other Western countries also consider the PKK a terrorist group.
Turkey, a NATO member, considers its operations against the Kurdish militia in Syria a matter of its own survival, and it also insists it won’t tolerate the virtual self-rule that the Kurds succeeded in carving out in northern Syria along the border.
The Turkish assault aims to carve out a corridor of control along the length of the border — a so-called “safe zone” — clearing out the Kurdish militia. Such a zone would end the Kurds’ autonomy in the area and put much of their population under Turkish control. Ankara has said it aims to settle 2 million Syrian refugees, who are mainly Arabs, in the zone.
Turkey began its offensive in northern Syria on Wednesday with airstrikes and artillery shelling, and then ground troops crossed the border later in the day.
Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said their fighters have repelled Turkish forces ground attacks.
“No advance as of now,” he tweeted Thursday.
But Maj. Youssef Hammoud, a spokesman for Turkish-backed opposition fighters participating in the operation, said they captured the village of Yabisa, near Tal Abyad, a spokesman for the fighters said. In a tweet, he called it “the first village to win freedom.”
Turkey’s state-run news agency said the allied Syrian fighters had cleared and entered a second village, Tel Fander, but provided no details. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Turkish commandos entered the village of Beir Asheq.
The Observatory said more than 60,000 people have fled their homes since Wednesday, while the UNHCR estimated it at tens of thousands. It called on parties to adhere to International Humanitarian Law, including providing access for aid agencies.
International aid agencies warned of an escalating humanitarian crisis, saying that civilians were at risk “as violence escalates.”
The statement was co-signed by 14 organizations, including Doctors of the World and Oxfam, saying an estimated 450,000 people live within 5 kilometers (3 miles) of the border with Turkey “and are at risk if all sides do not exercise maximum restraint and prioritize the protection of civilians.”
There already are more than 90,000 internally displaced people in the region, it said, with camps and detention centers holding tens of thousands of fighters with families.
Trump’s decision marked a stark change in his rhetoric. Last year, he vowed to stand by the Kurds, saying they “fought with us” and “died with us,” and insisted America would never forget.
On Wednesday, Trump called Turkey’s operation “a bad idea,” but also said he didn’t want the U.S. to be involved in “endless, senseless wars.”
The U.N. Security Council scheduled closed consultations Thursday at the request of the five European council nations — the U.K., France, Germany, Belgium and Poland.
The campaign drew criticism and calls for restraint.
Australia expressed concerns it could lead to a resurgence of the Islamic State group. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he had contacted the Turkish and U.S. governments overnight and said he was worried about the situation.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned Turkey’s actions and warned of an “ethnic cleansing” against the Kurds. He said Israel is prepared to extend humanitarian assistance to the “gallant Kurdish people.”
Two British militants believed to be part of an Islamic State cell that beheaded hostages have been moved out of a detention center in Syria and were in U.S. custody, and they will be handed over to Iraqi authorities.
The two are part of nearly 50 IS members to be handed over by Friday, according to two Iraqi intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
The two, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Amon Kotey, along with other British jihadis allegedly made up the IS cell that was nicknamed “The Beatles” by surviving captives because of their English accents. In 2014 and 2015, the militants held more than 20 Western hostages in Syria and tortured many of them.
The group beheaded seven American, British and Japanese journalists and aid workers and a group of Syrian soldiers, boasting of the butchery in videos posted online.
Kurdish forces are holding more than 10,000 IS members. Those include some 2,000 foreigners, including about 800 Europeans.
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed.
This version corrects the name of the aid agency to Doctors of the World, not Doctors Without Borders.