IS members escape as Turkish forces approach key Syrian town

Turkish forces approached a key Kurdish-held town in northern Syria on Sunday, setting off clashes that allowed hundreds of Islamic State supporters to escape from a camp for displaced people and prompted US soldiers to withdraw from a nearby base.

A US military official said the situation across northeastern Syria was “deteriorating rapidly” and that American forces were cut off from the Syrian Kurdish fighters they had previously partnered with.

The official, who was not authorised to disclose operational details and spoke on condition of anonymity, said US troops on the ground are at risk of being “isolated” and cannot travel overland without a “high risk” of armed confrontation with Turkey-backed forces.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Sunday that President Donald Trump had ordered the withdrawal of up to 1,000 troops from northern Syria, as the number of people fleeing a Turkish assault soared to 130,000.

“I spoke with the president last night after discussions with the rest of the national security team and he directed that we begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria,” Esper told CBS’s Face the Nation.

Esper told Fox News that the number of troops being pulled back totaled “less than a thousand.” “I can’t give a timeline because it changes hourly. We want to make sure that we do so in a very safe, deliberate manner, that we deconflict things as we go with those folks on the ground and immediate area.”

The camp in Ein Eissa, some 35 kilometres (20 miles) south of the border, is home to some 12,000 people, including 1,000 wives and widows of Islamic State fighters and their children.

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The Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria said in a statement that 950 IS supporters escaped after attacking guards and storming the gates. It was not immediately possible to confirm that figure. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Turkish warplanes struck villages near the camp on Sunday. It said camp residents fled as clashes broke out between Turkey-backed Syrian fighters and Kurdish forces, without providing an exact number.

Jelal Ayaf, a senior official at the camp, told local media that 859 people successfully escaped from the section housing foreigners. He said a few were recaptured but that supporters inside the other section of the camp also escaped and were carrying out attacks. He described the situation as “very volatile.” The US official said a “small group” of American troops withdrew from a base in the town because of the threat posed by Syrian fighters allied with Turkey, but that US forces were still present in larger bases nearby. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces were a key US ally in the war against the Islamic State group and drove the extremists from most of the territory they once held in northeastern Syria. The force swept up thousands of Islamic State fighters and their family members in the campaign, and has warned it may not be able to maintain its various detention centres as it struggles to repel the Turkish advance.

NATO member Turkey views the Kurdish fighters as terrorists because of their links to the insurgency in its southeast and has vowed to carve out a “safe zone” along the border. It launched the operation earlier this week after President Donald Trump moved US forces aside, saying he was committed to getting out of America’s “endless” wars. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday ruled out any mediation between Ankara and the “terror group.” The United Nations says more than 130,000 Syrians have fled since the operation began five days ago, including many who had taken refuge from previous rounds of fighting in the country’s eight-year civil war.

Turkey’s Defense Ministry tweeted Sunday that its forces had taken control of the main highway running between Hassakeh, a major town and logistics hub, and Ein Eissa, the administrative centre of the Kurdish-held areas. Heavy fighting was also underway Sunday in the town of Suluk, northeast of Ein Eissa. Turkey’s official news agency said Syrian fighters allied with Ankara had captured the town, while Kurdish officials said they were still battling to hold onto it. The Anadolu news agency said Turkey-backed forces had cleared the town centre of Suluk, which is located at a strategic crossroads about 10 kilometres (six miles) south of the border.”/>
media_cameraSmoke rising from the Syrian border town of Ras al-Ain as fighting rages along the border on the fifth day of a Turkish offensive in Syria against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that has provoked an international outcry and left dozens of civilians and fighters dead. Picture: Ozan Kose / AFP

Smoke could be seen rising from several points in the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, near the border, as a machine-gun mounted pick-up truck filled with Turkey- backed Syrian fighters drove along the outskirts. In the distance, a flag of the main Kurdish militia could still be seen waving from a tall post. Turkish troops and their Syrian allies have made steady gains since launching the operation, capturing several northern villages in fighting and bombardment that has killed and wounded dozens of people. The military said it captured the centre of the sizable town of Ras al-Ayn Saturday. Turkey continued shelling around the town and sporadic clashes could be heard.

Turkey says 440 Kurdish fighters have been killed since the operation began Wednesday. The SDF says 56 of its fighters have been killed. Turkey says four of its soldiers and 16 allied Syrian fighters have been killed since the operation began.

The clashes have spilled across the border, with shells fired from Syria hitting the Turkish border towns of Akcakale and Suruc. Anadolu says one person was wounded in Suruc on Sunday. Cross-border fire has killed 18 civilians in Turkey since the operation began.

Heavy outgoing shelling could be heard in Akcakale early Sunday and at least one incoming projectile hit a house, leaving a gaping hole in the exterior wall and rubble inside. It was not immediately clear if anyone was wounded. Police collected evidence as a crowd gathered outside.

The UN meanwhile said a pumping station in the town of Hassakeh was damaged by shelling, affecting the water supply for 400,000 people, including 82,000 residents of camps for displaced people.

Germany’s Merkel urges Turkey to halt Syria push

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged Turkey’s president to immediately stop his country’s military offensive into northeastern Syria against Syrian Kurdish fighters.

Merkel spoke by phone to Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday – a call that Germany said took place because Erdogan wanted it.

A statement by the German Chancellery says that regardless of “legitimate Turkish security interests,” the military operation threatens to displace major parts of the local population. Germany says the offensive also threatens to destabilize the region and restrengthen the extremist Islamic State group. The statement says Merkel and Erdogan also talked about the separate situation in the Syrian province of Idlib and Turkish gas well explorations in the eastern Mediterranean.

On Thursday, Erdogan warned the European Union not to call Turkey’s incursion into Syria an “invasion.” He threatened, as he has in the past, to “open the gates” and let Syrian refugees flood Europe.

Mediation calls rejected by Erdogan

Turkey’s president has rejected offers for mediation with Syrian Kurdish fighters as the Turkish military continues its offensive against them in northern Syria.

Speaking on Sunday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan slammed western allies for standing by the Syrian Kurdish militias and said Turkey won’t negotiate with “terrorists.”

NATO member Turkey views the Syrian Kurdish fighters as terrorists because of their links to an insurgency in southeast Turkey. But those same Syrian Kurdish forces were a key US ally in the war against the Islamic State group. Turkey has vowed to carve out a “safe zone” inside Syria along the border. Without specifying which countries made a mediation offer, Erdogan asked: “What kind of prime minister, what kind of head of state are those who offer to mediate between us and the terror group?” Turkey, the US and the European Union all designate the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, as a terror group.

– El Deeb reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed. With AP and wires.

Originally published as IS members escape as US troops withdraw

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