Turkish ground forces have pressed their advance against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, launching air strikes and unleashing artillery shelling on Syrian towns and villages the length of its border, Turkey’s Defence Ministry said.
The Turkish invasion, now in its second day, has been widely condemned around the world.
In northern Syria, residents of the border areas scrambled in panic as they tried to get out on foot, in cars and with rickshaws piled with mattresses and a few belongings.
It was a familiar scenario for many who, only a few years ago, had fled the advances on their towns and villages by so-called Islamic State (IS).
A Kurdish-led group and Syrian activists claimed on Thursday that despite the heavy barrage, Turkish troops had not made much progress on several fronts they had opened.
Turkey began its offensive in northern Syria on Wednesday against Kurdish fighters with air strikes and artillery shelling, before ground troops began crossing the border later in the day.
US troops pulled back from the area, paving the way for Turkey’s assault on Syrian Kurdish forces.
Turkey has long threatened to attack the Kurdish fighters whom Ankara considers terrorists allied with a Kurdish insurgency in Turkey.
Expectations of an invasion increased after US President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision on Sunday to essentially abandon the Syrian Kurdish fighters, leaving them vulnerable to a Turkish offensive.
The Kurds, who have been America’s only allies in Syria fighting IS, on Thursday stopped all their operations against the IS extremists in order to focus on fighting advancing Turkish troops, Kurdish and US officials said.
The Turkish Defence Ministry statement on Thursday did not provide further details on the offensive but shared a brief video of commandos in action.
The ministry said Turkish jets and artillery had struck 181 targets east of the Euphrates River in Syria since the incursion started.
Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said their fighters have repelled Turkish forces ground attacks.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor that has activists throughout the country, said Turkish troops tried to push ahead on several fronts under the cover of air strikes and artillery shelling but made no tangible progress.
The observatory said that since Turkey began its operation, seven civilians have been killed.
Turkey said it intends to create a “safe zone” that would push the Kurdish militia away from its border and eventually allow the repatriation of up to two million Syrian refugees in the area.
Mr Trump’s decision to have American troops step aside in north-eastern Syria was a major shift in US policy and drew opposition from all sides at home.
It also marked a stark change in rhetoric by Mr Trump, who during a press conference in New York last year vowed to stand by the Kurds, who have been America’s only allies in Syria fighting IS.
Mr Trump said at the time that the Kurds “fought with us” and “died with us”, and insisted that America would never forget.
After Mr Erdogan announced the offensive, Mr Trump called the operation “a bad idea” and later said he did not want to be involved in “endless, senseless wars”.
Turkey’s campaign – in which the Nato member rained down bombs on an area where hundreds of US troops had been stationed – drew immediate criticism and calls for restraint from Europe.
Australia expressed concerns the Turkish incursion could galvanise a resurgence of IS and refused to endorse close ally the US for pulling back its troops from the area.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he had been in contact with the Turkish and US governments overnight and admitted to being worried about the situation.
In Washington, officials said that two British militants believed to be part of an IS cell that beheaded hostages had been moved out of a detention centre in Syria and were in US custody.
The two, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Amon Kotey, along with other British jihadis allegedly made up the IS cell nicknamed The Beatles by surviving captives because of their English accents.
In 2014 and 2015, the militants held more than 20 Western hostages in Syria and tortured many of them.
The group beheaded seven American, British and Japanese journalists and aid workers and a group of Syrian soldiers, boasting of the butchery in videos released to the world.