Turkey Syria offensive: Fierce battle rages in Ras al-Ain

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Media captionThe BBC’s Martin Patience explains what’s behind the conflict

Fierce fighting is taking place around the Syrian border town of Ras al-Ain as Turkish forces continue their military operation in north-eastern Syria.

Turkey says it has taken the town but the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) dispute this.

Turkey has also denied targeting US forces after the Pentagon said troops further west came under fire.

At least 30 civilians are reported killed and more than 200,000 displaced in four days of fighting.

President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from the area effectively triggered the Turkish incursion against the SDS – the main Western allies in the fight against so-called Islamic State.

Turkey accuses the Kurds of being terrorists and says it wants to drive them away from a “safe zone” inside Syria where it plans to resettle more than three million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey.

One major concern for the international community is the fate of thousands of suspected Islamic State group (IS) prisoners, including many foreign nationals, being guarded by Kurdish-led forces in the region.

What’s the latest on the ground?

The Turkish military and the SDF are engaged in heavy clashes in Ras al-Ain. War planes have been circling, the town has been hit by days of artillery bombardment and intense gunfire has been heard.

Meanwhile a spokesman for the Turkey-backed rebels told Reuters news agency they had seized a strategically important road between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain and 18 villages had been captured during the advance.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ras al-Ain has been hit by heavy Turkish bombardment

On Friday, the Pentagon said its base near the northern Syrian town of Kobane – which was not included in the US withdrawal and where Turkey knew US forces were present – had seen shell fire from Turkish positions. There were no injuries.

Turkey said it had been responding to fire from the area and had ceased its bombardment after being informed by the US.

The SDF are facing numerous Turkish ground and air assaults along a stretch of the Turkey-Syria border about 75 miles (120km) long, correspondents say.

By the fourth day of fighting some 74 SDF fighters had been killed, mostly in the area around the town of Tal Abyad, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said.

Meanwhile 49 fighters with Turkish-backed Syrian rebels who are taking part in the Turkish offensive had also been killed.

Turkey’s military has confirmed the first death of a Turkish soldier and said three others had been wounded.

What is the situation for civilians?

Most of the civilian deaths occurred in the Tal Abyad area, the SOHR said. Dozens have also been seriously injured. Aid groups say as many as 450,000 people could be forced to move.

The fighting has also forced Tal Abyad’s only public hospital to close.

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Media captionResidents who have fled the city of Ras al-Ain wait at a shelter

On the Turkish side, at least five people including a Syrian baby were reportedly killed in Kurdish shelling of Turkish border towns.

Why is the offensive happening?

Kurdish leaders – whose militia fought with the US to defeat IS – accuse the US of stabbing them in the back after Mr Trump effectively gave Turkey the go-ahead to move into north-eastern Syria.

Mr Trump now says he wants the US to negotiate a truce between Nato ally Turkey and the Kurds. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, says the military operation will continue.

Mr Erdogan says he wants to create a “safe zone” in northern Syria free of Kurdish militias which could also be home to Syrian refugees.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption US forces are still present in parts of northern Syria – here US military vehicles patrol on Saturday in Hasakeh province

The incursion has been condemned by many in the US and other Western countries and pressure is building in Washington to get Turkey to stop.

President Trump spoke briefly about the situation as he prepared to head to a rally on Friday, saying: “We don’t want them killing a lot of people… if we have to use sanctions we will.”

What are fears about IS based on?

The SDF say they are holding 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 revealed, but some are reportedly close to the Turkish border.

Five IS members broke out of a prison in the city of Qamishli on Friday after Turkish shelling nearby, a Kurdish spokesman said.

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Media captionInside the camp of IS families in Syria

Two camps – Roj and Ain Issa – holding families of suspected IS members are inside the “safe zone”.

On Friday the Kurdish-led authorities said discussions were under way on how to move the Ain Issa camp, which had been hit by shelling.

Turkey says it will take responsibility for the IS prisoners it found during its offensive.

Meanwhile IS has stepped up attacks in northern Syria, killing six people in a bomb attack in the city of Qamishli on Thursday.

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