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Shells land near US base during Turkish offensive in Syria, as Russia warns of ISIS resurgence

By KAREEM FAHIM, SARAH DADOUCH AND KAREN DEYOUNG | The Washington Post | Published: October 11, 2019

AKCAKALE, Turkey — Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Friday that Turkey's offensive in northeast Syria could bring about a revival of the Islamic State militant group, adding to the international chorus of alarm about the military operation launched earlier in the week.

"There are areas in northern Syria where [the Islamic State] are active militants," Putin said in Turkmenistan, Russian news agencies reported. "Kurdish units used to keep an eye on those areas, but now that Turkish troops are entering the region, they may just flee away," he added, referring to the Syrian Kurdish forces that are the target of Turkey's offensive.

"I'm not sure that the Turkish army will be able to take control of the situation, and quickly," Putin said.

The warning, an unusual public rebuke of Turkey's government by Putin, underscored the spreading sense of dismay about the Turkish campaign into Syria.

Cross-border firefights, a rising death toll and a growing exodus people from their homes over the past few days have reinforced worries that the operation might easily spiral out of control.

The Trump administration has been concerned that U.S. troops still stationed in Syria could get caught in the crossfire. On Friday evening, an explosion occurred near a U.S. military position outside Kobane, a Syrian border town, where U.S. troops remain, said a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

It was not immediately clear what the source of the explosion was, but no U.S. troops were injured or killed, the official said. U.S. military officials were investigating whether indirect fire, such as artillery or rockets, was the cause and who may have fired on the U.S. position if so.

"We don't know from where it came," the official said, adding that U.S. troops were in position at a small military outpost when the explosion happened.

A few hours earlier, the Pentagon's top general, Army Gen. Mark Milley, said that Turkish forces know where American troops are in Syria "down to the grid" on a map. He said U.S. troops retain the right to defend themselves as needed. He said that some U.S. forces in the region had been "repositioned" for force protection as Kurdish fighters, who were providing security for U.S. installations, had headed north toward Turkey.

Turkey's Defense Ministry said in a statement that its troops had not fired on the U.S. soldiers. A Turkish border post south of the Turkish town of Suruc had come under attack Friday from hills approximately a kilometer southwest of a U.S. observation post and Turkish troops had fired back "in self-defense," the statement said.

"All precautions were taken prior to opening fire in order to prevent any harm to the U.S. base."

The Turks acknowledged they had stopped firing after "receiving information" from the United States. One U.S. estimate found that a shell landed within a few hundred yards of American troops.

More than two dozen civilians have been killed on both sides of the border, including at least 12 people in Syria and 17 in Turkey, officials said. About 100,000 people have fled the Turkish advance in northern Syria, the United Nations said on Friday. A staff member of a nongovernmental organization working with Save the Children in the area said families were leaving the border areas, where fighting is concentrated, and other larger Syrian towns as a precautionary measure.

Turkish border towns battered by mortar fire from Syria have also been emptied.

The Kurdish-led force, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said on Friday that Islamic State detainees had escaped from a prison in the Syrian city of Qamishli after it was shelled by the Turkish military. A video released by the Kurds of what they said was the prison showed what appeared to be mortar shells landing in a courtyard and near a fountain. It also showed a group of people rushing through a door, though it was impossible to determine who those people were and whether they were fleeing or being escorted to safety.

Mervan Qamishlo, an SDF spokesman, said that five Islamic State detainees had escaped as panicked guards fled the area. Turkey has denied claims that it is attacking Qamishli, saying it does not have military units in the area.

Turkey's government has portrayed the offensive as a limited, careful operation, aimed at clearing the border area of Kurdish fighters and establishing a "safe zone" in northeastern Syria, where it says at least 1 million Syrian refugees now residing in Turkey would be resettled. Erdogan has promised to eliminate the threat from Islamic State militants and to send aid to areas affected by the violence once the operation is finished.

Turkish officials have said the military intends to advance up to 19 miles into Syrian territory. They still had a considerable distance to go: By late Friday afternoon, as a column of Turkish tank carriers was seen lumbering toward the border town of Akcakale, Turkey, the Turks had advanced about five to six miles into Syria, according to estimates by Turkish and U.S. officials.

"We're not seeing any indication of . . . any planned stoppage," Milley said Friday at a Pentagon news conference.

He said that he was in regular contact with his Turkish counterpart and that the U.S. military was closely monitoring the progress of the incursion. "Right now, the Turks have conducted airstrikes, with fixed-wing manned aircraft and with UAVs in both reconnaissance and strike mode . . .. artillery strikes and some direct fire from tanks on the Turkish side," he said.

"To our knowledge," Turkish operations have been "relatively limited in terms of ground forces," Milley said, moving into Syria on both sides of the two main zones of attack along an 80-mile strip, bordered by Tal Abyad in the west and Ras al-Ayn in the east.

Turkish light infantry forces numbering in the hundreds and about 1,000 Turkish-backed Syrian rebel forces were "coming south on both sides of the two zones," he said, and had reached about three to six miles inside Syria in the west and one to two miles in the east.

Milley said the United States was asking the SDF "to continue their partnership with the United States. Naturally, there is a considerable amount of anxiety" on the part of the Kurds, and their leadership "has given instructions to some forces to begin to move north."

"We're encouraging them not to overreact at this point, to tamp things down, to allow some sort of diplomatic resolution of all of this," he said.

Milley and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that counter-Islamic State operations were continuing throughout eastern Turkey outside of the zone where Turkey is operating in the north.

With fighting underway, both sides provided conflicting numbers of casualties. On Friday, the Turkish Ministry of Defense said 342 "terrorists" - referring to Kurdish fighters - have been killed. The SDF said it had lost only 22 soldiers but claimed to have killed 262 Turkish soldiers and allied Syrian rebel fighters.

The Syrian National Army, an umbrella group for Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, said nine of its fighters had been killed. The Turkish Defense Ministry said two Turkish soldiers had been killed since the beginning of the operation.

An SDF statement said the two heavily populated northeastern towns of Amudah and Qamishli have suffered the brunt of the Turkish attack, with indiscriminate bombings that killed many civilians, but it did not specify a number.

In the southern Turkish town of Suruc, two civilians were killed Friday in a mortar attack launched from Syria, the state-run Anadolu Agency said. In Nusaybin, farther east, eight Turkish civilians were killed on Friday, the provincial governor said.

A ceremony was held Friday morning in the city of Sanliurfa to honor two of Turkey's victims: Cihan Gunes, 31, and Muhammed Omar, who was 9 months old. They were killed in separate mortar attacks Thursday in Akcakale.

Gunes, who was employed in the municipal tax office in Sanliurfa but had gone to work in Akcakale for the day, was killed after a rocket fell in the courtyard of a government office, a police officer said. Omar, whose family is Syrian, was hit by shrapnel in front of his home.

The ceremony was packed with police officers and municipal workers. Their two wooden caskets, draped with Turkish flags, were displayed on stands covered in white tablecloths. A picture of Omar, wearing a white beanie, leaned against his coffin. "Muhammed Omar's casket is small, but his heart is big," an imam said during prayers.

A co-worker said Gunes had worked in the Sanliurfa tax office for about a year and a half and was engaged to be married. Another colleague, Halil Polat, one of Gunes's co-workers, called him "a good guy, a nice guy."

They had spoken on Thursday. "I jokingly told him I'd say my prayers for him," Polat said.

DeYoung reported from Washington. Zeynep Karatas in Sanliurfa, Turkey, and Liz Sly in Beirut contributed to this report.

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