ANKARA/BEIRUT • Turkish-backed Syrian rebels advanced into Ras al-Ain in Syria's north-east yesterday but it was unclear how far they had gone, with Turkey saying the town centre had been taken while Kurdish-led forces denied this and said they were counter-attacking.
The battle for Ras al-Ain came as Turkey pursued a four-day-old cross-border offensive against a Syrian Kurdish militia despite an outcry from the United States and European Union and warnings of possible sanctions unless Ankara desisted.
Washington said Turkey's incursion was causing great harm to relations with its Nato ally.
The Turkish assault has raised alarm about its humanitarian fallout. The regional Kurdish-led administration in Syria's north-east said nearly 200,000 people had been displaced as a result, while the UN World Food Programme put the figure at more than 100,000 in the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain.
Turkey began its onslaught against the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as a terrorist group, after US President Donald Trump spoke by phone last Sunday to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and withdrew some US troops backing Kurdish forces.
"The (Syrian rebel) national army took control of (Ras al-Ain) town centre this morning," a senior Turkish security official said yesterday.
"Inspections are being conducted in residential areas. Mine and booby trap searches are being carried out."
Turkey's Defence Ministry subsequently said on Twitter that Ras al-Ain had been brought under control, with officials posting photos showing deserted streets and Syrian rebels standing on Kurdish militia flags.
But the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in which the YPG comprises the main fighting element, denied losing the centre of Ras al-Ain.
Mr Marvan Qamishlo, an SDF military media official, said Turkish-backed forces had entered the town's industrial district following hours of heavy Turkish shelling that had forced the SDF into a tactical retreat from the area.
"The SDF's attack has started and there are very fierce clashes now," he told Reuters.
"The clashes are continuing in the industrial district" he said, adding that this was the part of Ras al-Ain closest to the Turkish border.