Turkish forces have seized control of a key Syrian border town which has been a focus of its operation against Kurdish militants, the defence ministry has claimed.
Turkey-backed Syrian opposition forces were said to have taken over the centre of Ras al-Ain on Saturday as Turkey’s offensive against a Kurdish militia in the region entered its fourth day.
‘The [Syrian rebel] national army took control of the town centre this morning. Inspections are being conducted in residential areas,’ a senior Turkish official said.
Kurdish authorities have, however, denied this is the case. ‘Ras al-Ain is still resisting and clashes are ongoing,’ Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said.
An explosion over the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain as seen from the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province on Saturday
Thick plumes of smoke rose around Ras al-Ain, one of two Syrian border areas targeted in the offensive as Turkey-backed forces ramped up their attack
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported that the town, a major target of the Turkish offensive, had yet to be completely taken.
It comes as Turkey-backed troops stepped up their bombardment in northeastern Syria on Saturday as the death toll among Kurdish YPG fighters rose to 74.
On the front lines, thick plumes of smoke rose around Ras al-Ain, one of two Syrian border areas targeted in the offensive as Turkey-backed forces ramped up their military assault.
Intense gunfire also resounded from within the town itself, while warplanes could be heard flying overhead, reports said.
A Syrian Democratic Forces official inside Ras al-Ain said fighters had pushed back Ankara’s forces but clashes were ongoing.
It was quieter at Tel Abyad, the operation’s other main target some 75 miles to the west, with only occasional shell fire heard in the area.
In the countryside, Kurdish fighters have been losing ground. Turkish forces overran 18 villages overnight, most of them near Tal Abyad, raising the number they have taken so far to 23.
Turkey has said it aims to defeat the YPG, which it sees as an enemy for its links to PKK militants who have fought a decades-old insurgency in Turkey in which 40,000 people have been killed.
Intense gunfire also resounded from within the town itself, while warplanes could be heard flying overhead, reports said
A Turkish police armored vehicle patrols the town of Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, at the border with Syria
On Friday evening, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan dismissed mounting international criticism of the operation and said Turkey ‘will not stop it, no matter what anyone says’.
The movement comes as the death toll among Syrian Kurdish-led fighters rose to 74, most of whom have been killed in the Tel Abyad area, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed.
Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman also said 49 fighters with Turkish backed Syrian rebel groups had been killed since the assault began on Wednesday.
The death toll among civilians in Syria had climbed to 20 after two people died in the city of Qamishli, he said. Most of the civilian deaths were also in Tel Abyad.
Turkey’s Defense Ministry said 415 YPG militants had been ‘neutralised’ since the operation began, a term that commonly means killed.
There has been fierce international criticism of the assault and concern about its humanitarian consequences. The Syrian Kurdish-led administration said nearly 200,000 people have been displaced as a result of the offensive.
A Syrian Democratic Forces official inside Ras al-Ain (pictured on Saturday) said fighters had pushed back Ankara’s forces but clashes were ongoing
A US military vehicle patrols a road near the town of Tal Baydar in the countryside of Syria’s northeastern Hasakeh province on Saturday
Youssef Hammoud, spokesman for the Turkey-backed National Army, added on Saturday that fighters had cut the 712 road that links Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain.
‘This advance was on a new and surprise front between Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain. On this front, they were able to cut the roads linking together Suluk, Tel Abyad, Ras al-Ain with the villages in the area,’ he said.
The United States has ramped up its efforts to persuade Ankara to halt the incursion against US-backed Kurdish forces, saying Ankara was causing ‘great harm’ to ties and could face sanctions.
Turkey opened its offensive after US President Donald Trump spoke by phone on Sunday with Erdogan and withdrew US troops who had been fighting alongside Kurdish forces.
Displaced Syrians sit in the back of a pick up truck as Arab and Kurdish civilians flee amid Turkey’s military assault on Kurdish-controlled areas in northeastern Syria
On Friday evening, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan dismissed mounting international criticism of the operation and said Turkey ‘will not stop it, no matter what anyone says’
Earlier, the Pentagon said US troops came under artillery fire from Turkish positions on Friday but none of its soldiers were wounded, near Syria’s Kobani, some 37 miles west of the main area of conflict.
Turkey’s Defense Ministry said its forces did not open fire at the US base and took all precautions to prevent any harm to it while it was responding to fire from a nearby area by the Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara regards as a terrorist group.
‘US and coalition soldiers were definitely not hit. Indeed the necessary coordination is being carried out by our headquarters and the Americans,’ Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Saturday.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, with the Kurdish YPG as its main fighting element, now holds most of the territory that once made up Islamic State’s ‘caliphate’ in Syria, and has been keeping thousands of fighters from the jihadist group in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.
The United States has ramped up its efforts to persuade Ankara to halt the incursion against US-backed Kurdish forces
The US said Ankara was causing ‘great harm’ to ties and could face sanctions in the future
The Kurdish militia said the Turkish assault could allow the jihadist group to re-emerge as some of its followers were escaping from prisons.
In its first big attack since the assault began on Tuesday, Islamic State claimed responsibility for a deadly car bomb in Qamishli, the largest city in the Kurdish-held area, even as the city came under Turkish shelling.
Five Islamic State fighters fled a jail there, and foreign women from the group being held in a camp torched tents and attacked guards with sticks and stones, the SDF said.
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper has told his Turkish counterpart they should de-escalate the situation before it becomes ‘irreparable’, while European Council President Donald Tusk warned it could lead to a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’.
A motorist passes by in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, at the border with Syria
Smoke billows from Tel Abyad in Syria on Saturday in a photograph taken from the Turkish side of the border
Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, responded to the criticism on Saturday, saying ‘Turkey’s fight is against terrorists, not Kurds or civilians’.
‘Blackmail and threats will never deter Turkey from its just cause,’ Kalin wrote on Twitter. ‘God willing victory will be ours.’
US lawmakers introduced more legislation on Friday seeking stiff sanctions on Turkey over the offensive, underscoring unhappiness from both Democrats and President Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress over his Syria policy.