Turkish warplanes have bombed parts of north-eastern Syria at the start of an offensive which could lead to conflict with Kurdish-led allies of the US.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the operation was to create a “safe zone” cleared of Kurdish militias which will also house Syrian refugees.
Several locations were hit and at least two civilians died, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said.
It vowed to resist any Turkish advance across the border.
Amid growing humanitarian concerns, the SDF asked the US-led coalition against the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) to establish a no-fly zone in the area to stop “attacks on innocent people”.
The Kurds – key US allies in defeating IS in Syria – guard thousands of IS fighters and their relatives in prisons and camps in areas under their control and it is unclear whether they will continue to be safely detained.
The offensive was launched days after President Donald Trump withdrew US troops from the border area, a decision announced after a phone call with Mr Erdogan that was widely condemned.
In a statement, Mr Trump – who had threatened to “obliterate” Turkey’s economy if it went “off limits” – said the US did not “endorse this attack” and had told Turkey that the operation was a “bad idea”.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab expressed “serious concerns” about Turkey’s offensive, saying it “risks destabilising the region, exacerbating humanitarian suffering, and undermining the progress made against” IS.
What is Turkey’s plan?
On Twitter, Mr Erdogan said the mission “was to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area”, vowing to “preserve Syria’s territorial integrity and liberate local communities from terrorists.”
The scale of the long-threatened offensive was not yet clear, and there was no information on whether Turkish ground forces had attempted to enter Syria.
Several towns and villages were hit by air strikes and artillery fire, and residents were said to be fleeing the towns of Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad. Two civilians had been killed and two others injured in Misharrafa, west of Ras al-Ain, the SDF said.
Turkey considers the Kurdish YPG militia – the dominant force in the SDF – an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has fought for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for three decades.
The Turkish government plans to create a “safe zone” without Kurdish militias which will also accommodate two million of Turkey’s 3.6 million Syrian refugees.
It is thought the offensive – Turkey’s third military operation in northern Syria in three years – will initially focus on a 100km (62-mile) stretch between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, a sparsely populated, mainly Arab area.
If, as President Erdogan envisages, Turkish troops advance towards Kobane, to the west, and Qamishli, to the east, they would have to move into densely populated, mainly Kurdish areas.
An agonisingly long war
By BBC’s Orla Guerin in Akcakale on the Turkish-Syrian border
Police vehicles have been telling civilians to leave the area, and there were sounds of artillery fire and mortar rounds. There has been incoming mortar fire from just across the border but it has not reached Turkish territory.
President Erdogan says this is the beginning of Operation Peace Spring. There is no doubt that for the Syrian civilians who are just across the border this is going to be seen as another round of battling in an agonisingly long war.
The Kurdish forces have emphasised almost frantically in the last few days that the hard-won gains in their long battle against IS are now being put at risk. The SDF have lost an estimated 11,000 fighters in battling IS. They succeeded with American help.
But they point out, for example, that they may have to withdraw their forces from prisons where they are holding IS fighters or from cities that have been liberated from IS. The Kurds are basically saying to the West: the war that we fought on your behalf is now at risk because of what Turkey wants to do.
What has the international reaction been?
The UK and France planned to request an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the situation, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker urged Turkey to “halt its military operation”.
Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Turkey had “legitimate security concerns” but that he expected the country to “act with restraint and to ensure that any action… is proportionate and measured.
US Senator Lindsay Graham, a close ally of Mr Trump, said he would lead an effort in Congress to “make Erdogan pay a heavy price”, adding: “Pray for our Kurdish allies who have been shamelessly abandoned by the Trump Administration.”
In his statement, Mr Trump also said Turkey would be responsible for ensuring that suspected IS fighters being held captive remained in prison and that IS did not regroup.
The International Rescue Committee said the offensive could displace 300,000 people living in the area where Turkey plans to create a “safe zone”.
How would an incursion affect the IS situation?
The SDF says it is detaining more than 12,000 suspected IS members in seven prisons, and at least 4,000 of them are foreign nationals. The exact locations have not been not revealed, but some are reportedly close to the Turkish border.
Two camps – Roj and Ain Issa – holding families of suspected IS members are inside the “safe zone”. On Wednesday, IS militants reportedly carried out three suicide attacks in their former de facto capital of Raqqa. There was no confirmation of casualties.
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