By: LEFTERIS PITARAKIS and MEHMET GUZEL
AKCAKALE, Turkey (AP) — 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.