By Lefteris Pitarakis and Mehmet Guzel / Associated Press
AKCAKALE, Turkey — Turkish ground forces seized at least one village from Kurdish fighters in northern Syria as they pressed ahead with their assault for a second day Thursday, pounding towns and villages along the border with airstrikes and artillery.
Residents of border areas within Syria scrambled in panic as they tried to escape on foot and in cars, pickup trucks and motorcycle rickshaws piled with mattresses and belongings, and the U.N. refugee agency said tens of thousands of people were on the move. It was wrenchingly familiar for many who only a few years ago had fled the militants of the Islamic State group.
The Turkish invasion 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 heavy black smoke rose above one border town.
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, and the situation was difficult to assess.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that so far, 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.
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, killing tens of thousands. The U.S. and other Western countries also consider the PKK a terrorist group.
Turkey 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 began crossing the border later in the day.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has activists throughout Syria, said seven civilians have been killed since Turkey began its operation.
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 the fighters captured the village of Yabisa, near the one of the main initial targets of the assault, the town of 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 also cleared and entered a second village, Tel Fander. It did not provide details. The Observatory 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.
Trump’s decision marked a stark change in rhetoric by Trump, who last year vowed to stand by the Kurds. He said at the time that 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 campaign by the NATO ally drew immediate criticism and calls for restraint from Europe and elsewhere.
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 admitted to being 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.”
In Washington, officials said Wednesday that two British militants believed to be part of an Islamic State cell that beheaded hostages had been moved out of a detention center in Syria and were in U.S. custody.
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.
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed.