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Heavy Fighting As Turkey Pushes Into Syria, Thousands Flee


Smoke billows from targets inside Syria during bombardment by Turkish forces on October 9.

Turkey pressed on with its offensive in northeast Syria for a second day on October 10 as tens of thousands of people fled the conflict zone amid heavy fighting between Turkish ground troops and Kurdish-led forces along the border with Turkey.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on October 10 rejected international criticism of the military operation east of the Euphrates River, reiterating that the offensive was aimed at "eliminating terror" along Turkey's borders.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey's incursion will not go further than 30 kilometers into northeast Syria.

Cavusoglu told CNN Turk that the security threat which Turkey says it faces from the presence of Kurdish fighters on its border would be eliminated if the area was cleared of militants.

"When we go 30 kilometers deep in the safe zone, terror there will be removed," he said.

Tens of thousands of people are reported to be leaving their homes in the conflict zone, including dozens of ethnic Armenians.

Lines of cars, trucks, and motorized rickshaws could be seen racing down the main roads, loaded with families who had hastily packed their belongings into duffel bags and plastic sacks.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on October 10 for a de-escalation of the conflict and for the protection of civilians in accordance with international law.

"I want to express my deepest concerns about the escalation of conflict in eastern Syria. It is absolutely essential to de-escalate," he told reporters in Copenhagen.

"Military operations must always respect the United Nations' chapter and international humanitarian law, and I am worried with the humanitarian concerns that exist in relation to not only casualties but also the displacement that is taking place," Guterres said.

The Norwegian Refugee Council estimates that some 450,000 people live within five kilometers of the border, including 90,000 who have already fled the civil war at least once.

Cavusoglu added that Turkey is entitled to use air space over Syria as part of its campaign. "We have the right to use that air space," he said. "That air space does not belong to the United States. It has no right to control that air space."

Erdogan said Turkish armed forces "neutralized" a total of 109 "terrorists" so far, referring to Kurdish militias.

Turkey-allied Syrian opposition fighters have "cleared " the border villages of Yabisa and Tel Fander, Turkish state media reported.

And the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Turkish commandos had entered the village of Beir Asheq.

Turkish armed forces earlier said they had struck 181 targets with air strikes and howitzers since the start of the operation.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) reported "heavy clashes"in border villages.

The SDF said they held off an incursion attempt near the border town of Ras al-Ain and repulsed a ground assault on Tal Abyad.

The Syrian Kurdish-led authorities also accused Turkey of shelling a prison in Qamishli holding Islamic State (IS) militants, calling it "a clear attempt" to help them escape.

The operation began after President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the area in a move that triggered criticism at home and international concerns.

In an interview with broadcaster PBS, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called allegations that the United States allowed Turkey to launch the assault "just false," and insisted that Washington didn't give Ankara a "green light."

He also said that Turkey had a "legitimate security concern" and "a terrorist threat to their south."

Norway, a NATO ally of Turkey, announced on October 10 that it was suspending all new arms exports to the country.

"Given that the situation is complex and changing quickly, the Foreign Ministry as a precautionary measure will not handle any new demands for exports of defense material or material for multiple uses... to Turkey," Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Soreide said.

France, Germany, Britain, Belgium, and Poland have called for a closed-door UN Security Council meeting on Syria for October 10.

And the Arab League, consisting of 22 states, is to hold an emergency meeting in Cairo on October 12 to discuss Turkey's assault.

Humanitarian Concerns

In a tweet on October 10, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced solidarity with the Kurds.

"Israel strongly condemns the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish areas in Syria and warns against the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds by Turkey and its proxies," Netanyahu wrote. "Israel is prepared to extend humanitarian assistance to the gallant Kurdish people."

Meanwhile, Iran's Foreign Ministry called for an "immediate" halt to Turkey's offensive and the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Syrian territory, citing concerns about the humanitarian situation and the dangers to civilians in the conflict zone.

During a visit to Turkmenistan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow will push for dialogue between the Syrian and Turkish governments.

Lavrov alleged that Turkey had not been able to properly raise its "legitimate concerns about the safety of its borders" with Damascus because of "the actions of the Americans and the coalition" east of the Euphrates River.

Russia and Iran have provided crucial support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during Syria's civil war, while the United States and Turkey have backed differing rebel groups.

In Yerevan, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian called on the international community to take measures to stop Turkey's "illegal actions" in Syria and "protect the rights of Syrian citizens, including ethnic minorities, living along the border with Turkey."

According to Armen Melkonyan of Armenia's Foreign Ministry, 13 ethnic Armenian families voluntarily left Tal Abyad and were transported to Al-Hasakah, deeper inside Syrian territory.

"Our embassy in Damascus is in constant contact with community leaders, and they do not want to be evacuated at this time," Melkonyan said.

The Syrian conflict began with a government crackdown on protesters in March 2011 and has since killed more than 400,000 people and displaced millions.

Turkey Urged To Show 'Restraint'

U.S. senators on October 9 announced a bipartisan bill was being drafted to sanction the heads of the Turkish political leadership, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the country's military and energy industries.

The bill would likely freeze U.S. assets of the top Turkish politicians and impose visa restrictions on officials. It would further seek to block the global sale of military equipment to Ankara, including U.S. ammunition sales, Reuters reported.

Part of the draft law proposes placing sanctions on Turkey over its purchase of a sophisticated Russian air-defense system that is not compatible with NATO capabilities.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Turkey, a NATO member, had "legitimate security concerns," yet it was "important to avoid actions that may further destabilize the region."

South African Ambassador Jerry Matthews Matjuila, who is the UN Security Council president, called on Turkey to "protect civilians" and exercise "maximum restraint."

Turkey's ground offensive on October 9 was preceded by hours of shelling by warplanes and artillery over territory held by Kurdish-led forces.

Erdogan said the purpose of the assault was to create a "safe zone" and targeted Kurdish militants and the Islamic State (IS) group in northern Syria.

Turkey had long threatened an attack on the Kurdish fighters whom Ankara considers terrorists.

With reporting by the BBC, AFP, Reuters, AP, and dpa
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