AKCAKALE - Turkey launched a military operation against Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria on Wednesday just days after US troops pulled back from the area, with air strikes and artillery hitting YPG militia positions around the border town of Ras al Ain.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, announcing the start of the action on Twitter, said the aim was to eliminate what he called a "terror corridor" on Turkey's southern border. He labelled the assault "Operation Peace Spring".
Turkey had been poised to enter northeast Syria since US troops, who had been fighting with the Kurds against Islamic State, started to leave the area in an abrupt policy shift by US President Donald Trump. The withdrawal was widely criticised in Washington as a betrayal of America's Kurdish allies.
A Turkish security source said the military operation into Syria had begun with air strikes.
Turkish howitzers also started hitting bases and ammunition depots of the Kurdish YPG militia. The artillery strikes, which also targeted YPG gun and sniper positions, were aimed at sites far from residential areas, the source said.
Several large explosions rocked Ras al Ain, just across the border across from the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar, a CNN Turk reporter said. The sound of planes could he heard above and smoke was rising from buildings in Ras al Ain, he said.
People were fleeing the town, witnesses said. A Reuters cameraman in the Turkish town of Akcakale saw several explosions across the border in the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, where a witness also reported people fleeing en masse.
World powers fear the action could open a new chapter in Syria's war and worsen regional turmoil. Ankara has said it intends to create a "safe zone" in order to return millions of refugees to Syrian soil.
Turkey is the largest host country of Syrian refugees, and the presence of over 3 million people who have fled the war has added further pressure to its strained economy.
Erdogan earlier told Russia's President Vladimir Putin in a phone call that the operation would help peace and stability in Syria.
In the build-up to the expected offensive, Syria had said it was determined to confront any Turkish aggression by all legitimate means. It was also ready to embrace "prodigal sons", it said, in an apparent reference to the Syrian Kurdish authorities who hold the northeast.
Turkey views Kurdish YPG fighters in northeast Syria as terrorists because of their ties to the militant Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) which has waged an insurgency inside Turkey since 1984. An influx of non-Kurdish Syrians along the Turkey-Syria border would help it secure a buffer against its main security threat.
Amid deepening humanitarian concerns, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all parties in northeast Syria to exercise maximum restraint and protect civilians.
Meanwhile Kurdish forces said the Turkish bombardment on Kurdish-controlled targets on Wednesday caused civilian casualties, despite Turkey's claims that its forces were avoiding residential areas.
The Syrian Democratic Forces' (SDF) coordination and military operations centre reported "intensive bombardment by Turkish jets on military positions and civilian villages" in the areas of Ras al-Ain, Tal Abyad, Qamishli and Ain Issa.
"According to initial reports there are casualties among civilian people," it said in a statement. The SDF is the Kurdish-led alliance of militias of which the YPG forms the leading force.
The SDF has denounced the US policy shift which paved the way for the Turkish assault as a "stab in the back". Trump denied he had abandoned the Kurdish forces, who were the most capable US partners in fighting Islamic State in Syria.
The Kurdish-led authority in northern Syria declared a state of "general mobilization" before the looming attack.
"We call on all our institutions, and our people in all their components, to head towards the border region with Turkey to fulfil their moral duty and show resistance in these sensitive, historic moments," it said in a statement.
SDF fighters armed with rocket launchers were later seen deploying in the area of Ras al-Ain. Kurdish-led security forces set up checkpoints and stockpiled tyres to set alight to blur the vision of Turkish military pilots. Ras al-Ain was one of the places from which US troops withdrew on Monday.
"We will not leave this land," said Kawa Sleem, a 32-year-old Ras al-Ain resident.
"War has been chasing us for years, and everyday Erdogan threatens us with a new attack," he added.
It was expected that Ras al-Ain and Tel Abyad - both with Arab-majority populations - would be the focus of the first assaults.
Kurdish forces have dug trenches and tunnels in both areas, covering streets with metal canopies to block the cameras of Turkish drones.
The US-backed SDF called on the international community to impose a no-fly zone to protect against "an imminent humanitarian crisis" and said they would hold their erstwhile US ally and the whole international community responsible for any "catastrophe".
Shortly after fighting started, Anadolu news agency said two shells hit the Turkish town of Ceynalipinar and six rockets hit Nusaybin.
"Both Turkish and Kurdish forces have a track record of carrying out indiscriminate attacks in Syria that have killed scores of civilians," warned Amnesty International's Middle East research director Lynn Maalouf.
"This must not be allowed to happen again," she added.
Erdogan's communications director Fahrettin Altun said Turkey had no ambition in northeastern Syria except to neutralize the threat against Turkish citizens and to liberate the local people from what he called "the yoke of armed thugs".
Turkey was taking over leadership of the fight against Islamic State in Syria, he said. YPG fighters could either defect or Ankara would have to "stop them from disrupting our counter-Islamic State efforts", he wrote in a tweet and in a column in the Washington Post.
Turkey's Demiroren news agency said Syrian rebels had travelled from northwest Syria to Turkey in preparation for the incursion. They will be based in Ceylanpinar, with 14,000 of them gradually joining the offensive.
Powers call for dialogue
EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday demanded Turkey halt its military operation in northern Syria, telling Ankara the bloc would not pay for any so-called "safe zone" that might be created.
Juncker told the European Parliament he recognised Turkey had "security concerns" along the border. But he warned the military action would not lead to a "good result", saying a political solution was the only way to end the Syrian conflict.
"I call on Turkey as well as the other actors to act with restraint and to stop operations already, as we are speaking, under way," Juncker said.
"I have to say if the Turkish plan involves the creation of a so-called safe zone, don't expect the European Union to pay for any of it."
NATO member Turkey is technically a candidate country to join the European Union but accession talks are effectively frozen and ties between the Ankara and the bloc have limped along for years.
Ankara agreed a six-billion-euro ($6.6-billion) deal with Brussels to stem the influx of migrants to the EU in 2016, but relations soured after Erdogan unleashed a major crackdown in the wake of a failed coup to overthrow him in the same year.
Meanwhile Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's strongest foreign ally, urged dialogue between Damascus and Syria's Kurds on solving issues in northeast Syria including border security.
"We will do our best to support the start of such substantive talks," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters during a visit to Kazakhstan.
Another Assad ally, Iran, urged Turkey to show restraint and avoid military action in northern Syria, although it said Turkey was "rightfully worried" about its southern border.
On Monday, Erdogan said US troops started to pull back after a call he had with Trump, adding that talks between Turkish and US officials on the matter would go on.
Trump's decision to pull back troops has rattled allies, including France and Britain, two of Washington's main partners in the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State.