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Turkish forces capture centre of key Syrian border town

The continued push by Turkey into Syria comes days after US President Donald Trump cleared the way for Turkey’s air and ground offensive.

A convoy of Turkish forces’ trucks transporting tanks is driven towards the border with Syria (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)
A convoy of Turkish forces’ trucks transporting tanks is driven towards the border with Syria (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

By Mehmet Guzel, Associated Press

Turkey’s military said it captured a key Syrian border town under heavy bombardment Saturday in its most significant gain, as its offensive against Kurdish fighters pressed into its fourth day with little sign of relenting despite mounting international criticism.

Turkish troops entered central Ras al-Ayn, according to Turkey’s defence Ministry and a war monitor group.

The ministry tweeted: “Ras al-Ayn’s residential centre has been taken under control through the successful operations in the east of Euphrates” river. It marked the biggest gain made by Turkey since the invasion began Wednesday.

The continued push by Turkey into Syria comes days after US President Donald Trump cleared the way for Turkey’s air and ground offensive, pulling back US forces from the area and saying he wanted to stop getting involved with “endless wars”.

Mr Trump’s decision drew swift bipartisan criticism that he was endangering regional stability and risking the lives of Syrian Kurdish allies who brought down the Islamic State group in Syria.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces were the main US ally in the fight against IS and lost 11,000 fighters in the nearly five-year battle against the extremists.

Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition fighters have made gains recently capturing several northern villages in fighting and bombardment that left dozens of people killed or wounded.

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Smoke rises from the town of Tel Abyad (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

The invasion also has forced nearly 100,000 people to flee their homes amid concerns that IS might take advantage of the chaos and try to rise again after its defeat in Syria earlier this year.

During a meeting Saturday in Cairo, the 22-member Arab League condemned what it described as “Turkey’s aggression against Syria” and warned that Ankara will be responsible for the spread of terrorism following its invasion.

The league said Arab states might take some measures against Ankara.

It called on the UN Security Council to intervene and force Turkey to stop its military operations.

The Turkish offensive was widely criticised by Damascus and some Western countries who called on Turkey to cease its military operations.

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Relatives of Halil Yagmur, 64, who was killed Friday during mortar shelling from Syria, mourn over his grave at the cemetery in the town of Suruc, south-eastern Turkey (Emrah Gurel/AP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that Turkey will not stop until the Syrian Kurdish forces withdraw below a 20 mile deep line from the border.

During the capture of Ras al-Ayn’s residential centre, an Associated Press journalist across the border in Turkey heard sporadic clashes as Turkish howitzers struck the town and Turkish jets screeched overhead.

Syrian Kurdish forces appeared to be holding out in some areas of the town.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, also called the SDF, released two videos said to be from inside Ras al-Ayn, showing fighters saying that it was Saturday and they were still there.

The fighting was continuing as the Kurdish fighters sought to reverse the Turkish advance into Ras al-Ayn, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Ras al-Ayn is one of the biggest towns along the border and it is in the middle of the area that Turkey plans to set up its safe zone.

The ethnically and religiously mixed town with a population of Arabs, Kurds, Armenians and Syriac Christians had been under the control of Kurdish fighters since 2013.

IS members tried to enter Ras al-Ayn following their rise in Syria and Iraq in 2014 but failed.

Most of the town’s residents have fled in recent days for fear of the invasion.

Earlier Saturday, Turkish troops moved to seize control of key highways in northeastern Syria, the Turkish military and the Syrian Observatory said.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said that Turkey-backed Syrian opposition forces had taken control of the M4 road that connects the towns of Manbij and Qamishli.

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Smoke billows from target in Tel Abyad, Syria (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

The SDF said that Turkish troops and their Syrian allies reached the highway briefly before being pushed back again.

Turkish troops also cut the route linking the northeastern city of Hassakeh with Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and once commercial centre, according to the Observatory.

Kurdish news agencies including Hawar and Rudaw said that Hevreen Khalaf, secretary general of the Future Syria Party, was killed Saturday as she was driving on the M4 .

The Turkish military aims to clear Syrian border towns of Kurdish fighters’ presence, saying they are a national security threat.

Since Wednesday, Turkish troops and Syrian opposition fighters backed by Ankara have been advancing under the cover of airstrikes and artillery shelling, reaching the Manbij-Qamishli road about 19 miles south of the Turkish border.

Turkey has said it aims to push back the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which it considers terrorists for its links to a decades-long Kurdish insurgency within its own borders. The YPG is a main component of the SDF.

The UN estimated the number of displaced at 100,000 since Wednesday, saying that markets, schools and clinics were also closed.

Aid agencies have warned of a humanitarian crisis, with nearly half a million people at risk in northeastern Syria.

PA

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