Turkish forces push deeper into Syria, with deaths rising
AKCAKALE, Turkey — Turkish forces faced fierce resistance from U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters on the third day of Ankara's offensive in northern Syria, as casualties mounted, international criticism of the campaign intensified and estimates put the number of those who fled the violence at 100,000.
Turkey said it captured more Kurdish-held villages in the border region, while a hospital in a Syrian town was abandoned and a camp of 4,000 displaced residents about 12 kilometers (7 miles) from the frontier was evacuated after artillery shells landed nearby.
Reflecting international fears that Turkey's offensive could revive the Islamic State group, two car bombs exploded outside a restaurant in the Kurdish-controlled urban center of Qamishli, killing three people, and the extremists claimed responsibility. The city also was heavily shelled by Turkish forces.
Kurdish fighters waged intense battles against advancing Turkish troops that sought to take control of two major towns along the Turkish-Syrian border, a war monitor said.
The U.N. estimated the number of displaced at 100,000 since Wednesday, saying that markets, schools and clinics also were closed. Aid agencies have warned of a humanitarian crisis, with nearly a half-million people at risk in northeastern Syria.
U.S. President Donald Trump cleared the way for Turkey's air and ground invasion after he pulled American troops from their positions near the border, drawing swift bipartisan criticism that he was endangering regional stability and putting at risk the lives of Syrian Kurdish allies who brought down the Islamic State group in Syria.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Washington is "greatly disappointed" by the offensive, which has badly damaged already frayed relations with NATO-ally Turkey. In a strong statement of support for the Kurds, Esper insisted that "we are not abandoning our Kurdish partner forces, and U.S. troops remain with them in other parts of Syria."
Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emphasized that U.S. forces are still working with Kurdish fighters.
U.S. troops conducted a military patrol about 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of Tal Abyad, in their first visible deployment since Turkey launched the operation. American troops had pulled out of the border area in Syria earlier this week and Trump said the estimated 1,000 U.S. troops were not in harm's way. A U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to brief reporters, said the patrol was not in support of operations against the Turkish offensive.
Video showed five armored personnel carriers moving from west of Ein Issa in the direction of Tal Abyad, and the U.S. official said they avoid areas where active combat operations were taking place.
Despite the criticism, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country "will not take a step back" from its offensive.
"We will never stop this step. We will not stop no matter what anyone says," he said in a speech Friday.
Plumes of black smoke billowed Friday from the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad as Turkey continued bombarding the area in an offensive that was progressing "successfully as planned," the Turkish Defense Ministry said.
Turkish troops and their allied Syrian opposition forces have advanced up to 8 kilometers (5 miles) into Syrian territory, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay told TRT World television. Turkey has said the military intends to move 30 kilometers (19 miles) into Syria and that its operation will last until all "terrorists are neutralized."