Turkish-led forces pursue assault around Syrian border towns

Turkish forces targeted areas around two Syrian border towns with fresh shelling on Sunday, pressing on with their offensive against Kurdish militia for a fifth day in the face of fierce international opposition.

Turkey is facing threats of possible sanctions from the United States unless it calls off the incursion, while the Arab League has denounced the operation and NATO allies Germany and France said they were halting weapons exports to Turkey.

Ankara launched the cross-border assault against the YPG militia after U.S President Donald Trump withdrew some U.S. troops from the border region. Turkey says the YPG is a terrorist group aligned with Kurdish militants in Turkey.

Gunfire resounded early on Sunday around Ras al Ain, one of two Syrian towns which are the focus of the attack, while Turkish artillery continued to target the area, a Reuters reporter across the border in the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar said.

Turkish-backed Syrian rebels advanced into Ras al Ain on Saturday. Turkey has said it took control of the town center, while Kurdish-led forces denied that and said they were counter-attacking.

At Tel Abyad, the operation’s other main target some 120 km (75 miles) to the west, Turkish howitzers shelled outlying districts, a witness in the neighboring Turkish town of Akcakale said.

The assault has raised international alarm over its mass displacement of civilians and the possibility of Islamic State militants escaping from Kurdish prisons.

In the latest criticism, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed “grave concern” about the offensive to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, saying it may worsen the humanitarian situation and undermine progress against Islamic State.

“He urged the President to end the operation and enter into dialogue,” a spokesman for Johnson said after the telephone call between the two leaders on Saturday evening.

Turkey’s Defence Ministry said on Sunday that 480 YPG militants had been “neutralised” since the operation began, a term that commonly means killed.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based organization which reports on the war, said 74 Kurdish-led fighters, 49 Turkey-backed Syrian rebels and 30 civilians have been killed in the fighting.

In Turkey, 18 civilians have been killed in cross-border bombardment, Turkish media and officials say.