Turkish forces launch ground offensive in Syria

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Turkish ground forces have moved across the border to fight against Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria, hours after Turkish jets and artillery pounded areas in Syria’s northern border

The country’s defence ministry said Turkish troops, joined by allied Syrian opposition forces, moved into Syria on Wednesday.

Turkey’s offensive, named Operation Peace Spring, came after US President Donald Trump agreed to withdraw American troops from the area, paving the way for an assault on forces that have long been allied with the United States.

Turkey aims to create a so-called “safe zone” that would be cleared of Kurdish fighters, who Ankara considers to be terrorists and an extension of Kurdish rebels fighting inside Turkey, and eventually allow for the return of refugees.

After the offensive began, there was sign of panic in the streets of Ras al-Ayn – one of the towns under attack with residential areas close to the borders.

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Plumes of smoke were seen after Turkey launched a military operation against Kurdish fighters in north-eastern Syria (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

Near the town of Qamishli, plumes of smoke were seen rising from an area close to the border after activists reported sounds of an explosion nearby.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at eight, including two Christian Assyrians in the city of Qamishli, a husband and wife and their child as well as another man in a village outside of the town of Tal Abyad, and a child in a village west of Qamishli.

Also killed was a man in Ras al-Ayn, it said.

The Observatory said at least seven fighters from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces were killed in the fighting.

The Kurdish forces have warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe” that could potentially unfold because of the Turkish military operation.

“Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area,” Mr Erdogan said in a tweet.

He added that Turkish Armed Forces, together with Turkish-backed Syrian fighters known as the Syrian National Army, had begun what they called “Operation Peace Spring” against Kurdish fighters to eradicate what Mr Erdogan said was “the threat of terror” against Turkey.

Minutes before Mr Erdogan’s announcement, Turkish jets began pounding suspected positions of Syrian Kurdish forces in the town of Ras al Ayn, according to Turkish media and Syrian activists.

The sound of explosions could be heard in Turkey.

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks on the phone before reportedly giving orders for the start of the military operation into Syria (Turkish Presidency Press Service via AP, Pool)

It was difficult to know what was hit in the first hours of the operation.

Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said Turkish warplanes were targeting “civilian areas” in northern Syria, causing “a huge panic” in the region.

The Turkish operation carries potential gains and risk for Turkey by getting even more deeply involved in the Syria war.

It also would ignite new fighting in Syria’s eight-year-old war, potentially displacing hundreds of thousands.

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A convoy of Turkish forces vehicles is driven through the town of Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, in south-eastern Turkey (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

Turkey has been massing troops for days along its border with Syria and vowed it would go ahead with the military operation and not bow to the US threat.

Mr Trump on Wednesday said the US does not endorse Turkey’s assault on northern Syria, and has made it clear to Ankara that its incursion against Kurdish fighters who helped the US fight the so-called Islamic State is a “bad idea”.

In a statement Mr Trump said no American soldiers are in the area being invaded.

Earlier, he had ordered US forces out of the area, prompting criticism that he was abandoning an American ally.

Mr Trump says he does not want the US to fight “these endless, senseless wars”.

He says he will hold Turkey to its commitment to protect civilians and religious minorities, including Christians, and ensure the invasion does not create a humanitarian crisis.

He also says Turkey must make sure that IS fighters held captive in Syria remain detained.

Fahrettin Altun, the Turkish presidency’s communications director, called on the international community in a Washington Post op-ed published Wednesday to rally behind Ankara, which he said would also take over the fight against the so-called Islamic State group.

Mr Erdogan discussed plans for the incursion with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Mr Erdogan’s office said the Turkish leader told his Russian counterpart by phone that the planned military action in the region east of the Euphrates River “will contribute to the peace and stability” and also “pave the way for a political process” in Syria.

Meanwhile, UN diplomats say the Security Council will hold a closed meeting on Thursday on Turkey’s military action.

The five European nations on the council, France, United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium and Poland, requested the meeting on Wednesday, the diplomats said.

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