ISTANBUL • Turkey stepped up its air and artillery strikes on Kurdish militia in north-east Syria yesterday, escalating an offensive that has drawn warnings of humanitarian catastrophe and turned Republican lawmakers in the US against President Donald Trump.
The incursion, launched after Mr Trump withdrew US troops who had been fighting alongside Kurdish forces against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militants, has opened a new front in the eight-year-old Syrian civil war and drawn fierce international criticism.
Mr Trump - fending off accusations that he had abandoned the Kurds, loyal allies of the US - suggested that Washington could mediate in the conflict, while also raising the possibility of imposing sanctions on Turkey.
Yesterday, Turkish warplanes and artillery struck around Syria's Ras al-Ain, one of two border towns that have been the focus of the offensive. Reuters journalists heard gunfire there from across the frontier in the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar.
A convoy of 20 armoured vehicles carrying Turkish-allied Syrian rebels entered Syria from Ceylanpinar. Some made victory signs, shouting "Allahu akbar" (God is the greatest) and waving Syrian rebel flags as they advanced towards Ras al-Ain. Some 120 km to the west, Turkish howitzers resumed shelling near the Syrian town of Tel Abyad.
"In these moments, Tel Abyad is seeing the most intense battles in three days," Mr Marvan Qamishlo, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said.
Overnight, clashes erupted at different points along the border, with Turkish and SDF exchanging shelling, said Mr Qamishlo. "The whole border was on fire," he said.
Turkish forces have seized nine villages near Ras al-Ain and Tel Abyad, said Mr Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
At least 32 fighters with the SDF and 34 Turkey-backed Syrian rebels have been killed in fighting, while 10 civilians have been killed, he said. The SDF said 22 of its fighters were killed on Wednesday and Thursday.
Turkey said it has killed hundreds of SDF fighters in the operation and one Turkish soldier has been killed.
Ankara said the purpose of its assault is to defeat the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as an enemy for its links to insurgents in Turkey. It said it aims to set up a "safe zone" inside Syria, where it can resettle many of the 3.6 million refugees.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has criticised Europe for not supporting the Turkish move, and threatened to send refugees to Europe if the EU did not back him.
European Council president Donald Tusk responded yesterday by chastising Mr Erdogan for the threat, saying: "Turkey must understand that our main concern is that their actions may lead to another humanitarian catastrophe."
Without elaborating, US President Donald Trump said the US was "going to possibly do something very, very tough with respect to sanctions and other financial things" against Turkey.
The International Rescue Committee aid group says 64,000 people in Syria have fled in the first days of the campaign.
Mr Trump's decision to withhold protection from the Kurds has been one of the few issues to prompt criticism from his fellow Republicans, including leading allies on Capitol Hill such as Senator Lindsey Graham.
Mr Trump said in a Twitter post on Thursday: "We have one of three choices: Send in thousands of troops and win Militarily, hit Turkey very hard Financially and with Sanctions, or mediate a deal between Turkey and the Kurds!"
"I hope we can mediate," he said when asked about the options by reporters at the White House.
Without elaborating, he said the US was "going to possibly do something very, very tough with respect to sanctions and other financial things" against Turkey.