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Turkish forces say they’ve captured key Syrian border town

Syria: Turkey takes first major city from SDF in Ras al-ain

News 8 at 6 p.m.

Turkey (AP) — Turkey’s military said it captured a key Syrian border
town under heavy bombardment Saturday in its most significant gain since
an offensive against Kurdish fighters began four days ago, with no sign
of relenting despite mounting international criticism.

troops entered central Ras al-Ayn, according to Turkey’s Defense
Ministry and a war monitor group. The ministry tweeted: “Ras al-Ayn’s
residential center has been taken under control through the successful
operations in the east of Euphrates” River. It marked the biggest gain
made by Turkey since the invasion began Wednesday.

The continued
push by Turkey into Syria comes days after President Donald Trump pulled
U.S. forces out of the area, making Turkey’s air and ground offensive
possible, and said he wanted to stop getting involved with “endless
wars.” Trump’s decision drew swift bipartisan criticism that he was
endangering regional stability and risking the lives of Syrian Kurdish
allies who brought down the Islamic State group in Syria. The
Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces was the main U.S. ally in the fight
and lost 11,000 fighters in the nearly five-year battle against IS.

troops and allied Syrian opposition fighters have made gains recently
capturing several northern villages in fighting and bombardment that
left dozens of people killed or wounded. The invasion also has forced
nearly 100,000 people to flee their homes amid concerns that IS might
take advantage of the chaos and try to rise again after its defeat in
Syria earlier this year.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF,
said the United States should carry out its “moral responsibilities” and
close northern Syrian airspace to Turkish warplanes, but that it didn’t
want the U.S. to send its soldiers “to the front lines and put their
lives in danger.”

During a meeting Saturday in Cairo, the
22-member Arab League condemned what it described as “Turkey’s
aggression against Syria” and warned that Ankara will be responsible for
the spread of terrorism following its invasion. The league said Arab
states might take some measures against Ankara. It called on the U.N.
Security Council to force Turkey to stop the offensive.

Turkish offensive was widely criticized by Syria and some Western
countries, which called on Turkey to cease its military operations.

defense and foreign ministries said Saturday that the country was
halting exports of any arms to Turkey that could be used in its

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also announced that Germany
would curtail its arms exports to Turkey. Maas told the weekly Bild am
Sonntag that “against the background of the Turkish military offensive
in northeastern Syria, the government will not issue any new permissions
for any weapons that can be used by Turkey in Syria.”

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that Turkey won’t stop until
the Syrian Kurdish forces withdraw at least 32 kilometers (20 miles)
from the border.

During the capture of Ras al-Ayn’s residential
center, an Associated Press journalist across the border heard sporadic
clashes as Turkish howitzers struck the town and Turkish jets screeched
overhead. Syrian Kurdish forces appeared to be holding out in some areas
of the town.

The SDF released two videos said to be from inside
Ras al-Ayn, showing fighters saying that it was Saturday and they were
still there.

The fighting was ongoing as the Kurdish fighters
sought to reverse the Turkish advance into the city, according to the
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor.

al-Ayn is one of the biggest towns along the border and is in the
middle of the area where Turkey plans to set up its safe zone. The
ethnically and religiously mixed town with a population of Arabs, Kurds,
Armenians and Syriac Christians had been under the control of Kurdish
fighters since 2013. IS members tried to enter Ras al-Ayn following
their rise in Syria and Iraq in 2014 but failed.

Most of the town’s residents have fled in recent days for fear of the invasion.

Saturday, Turkish troops moved to seize control of key highways in
northeastern Syria, the Turkish military and the Syrian Observatory
said. Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said that Turkey-backed
Syrian opposition forces had taken control of the M-4 highway that
connects the towns of Manbij and Qamishli. The SDF said that Turkish
troops and their Syrian allies reached the highway briefly before being
pushed back again.

Kurdish news agencies including Hawar and Rudaw
said that Hevreen Khalaf, secretary general of the Future Syria Party,
was killed Saturday as she was driving on the M-4 highway. Rudaw’s
correspondent blamed Turkish forces for targeting Khalaf’s car, and
Hawar blamed “Turkey’s mercenaries.”

The Observatory said six
people, including Khalaf, were killed by Turkey-backed opposition
fighters on the road that they briefly cut before withdrawing.

Turkish military aims to clear Syrian border towns of Kurdish fighters’
presence, saying they are a national security threat. Since Wednesday,
Turkish troops and Syrian opposition fighters backed by Ankara have been
advancing under the cover of airstrikes and artillery shelling.

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.

A civilian wounded in a mortar
strike from Syria on Friday in the Turkish border town of Suruc died,
Anadolu news agency reported Saturday, bringing the civilian death toll
to 18 in Turkey. Turkey’s interior minister said hundreds of mortars,
fired from Syria, have landed in Turkish border towns.

Observatory said 74 Kurdish-led SDF fighters have been killed since
Wednesday as well as 49 Syrian opposition fighters backed by Turkey.
That’s in addition to 38 civilians on the Syrian side. It added that
Turkish troops now control 23 villages in northeastern Syria.

defense ministry said it “neutralized” 459 Syrian Kurdish fighters. The
number could not be independently verified. Four Turkish soldiers have
been killed since the beginning of the offensive, including two who were
killed in Syria’s northwest.

France’s leader warned Trump in a
phone call that Turkey’s military action in northern Syria could lead to
a resurgence of IS activity. President Emmanuel Macron “reiterated the
need to make the Turkish offensive stop immediately,” his office said in
a statement Saturday.

A Kurdish police force in northern Syria
said a car bomb exploded early Saturday outside a prison where IS
members are being held in the northeastern city of Hassakeh. It was not
immediately clear if there were any serious injuries or deaths.

Kurdish fighters are holding about 10,000 IS fighters, including some 2,000 foreigners.


Associated Press writers Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed.