Turkey intensifies Syria offensive as Islamic State strikes Kurds

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ISTANBUL:  Turkey intensified its air and artillery strikes in northeast Syria on Friday in an offensive against Kurdish militia that has raised the prospect of a humanitarian disaster and questions about U.S. President Donald Trump’s policy in the region.

The Kurds, who recaptured swathes of northeastern Syria from Islamic State with the backing of the United States, say the Turkish assault could allow the terrorist group to re-emerge as some of its followers were escaping from prisons.

In its first big attack since the assault began on Tuesday, Islamic State claimed responsibility for a deadly car bomb in Qamishli, the largest city in the Kurdish-held area, even as the city came under heavy Turkish shelling.

Five Islamic State fighters fled a jail there, and foreign women from the group being held in a camp torched tents and attacked guards with sticks and stones, the Kurds said.

Turkey opened its offensive after Trump spoke by phone on Sunday with Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan and withdrew U.S. troops who had been fighting alongside Kurdish forces.

On Friday, U.S. military officials denied accusations by lawmakers and policy analysts that the Trump administration had abandoned U.S. allies to a Turkish military onslaught. Turkey says its aim is to defeat the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as an enemy for its links to insurgents in Turkey.

“Nobody green-lighted this operation by Turkey, just the opposite. We pushed back very hard at all levels for the Turks not to commence this operation,” U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told a news briefing, responding to criticism that Trump had given Turkey a tacit “green light” for its attack.

An explosion occurred near a U.S. military outpost in northern Syria on Friday, but no personnel were reported hurt and the source of the blast near Kobane was unclear, a U.S. official said.

The Pentagon stressed the need for Turkey to avoid doing anything to endanger U.S. forces inside Syria, who numbered about 1,000 before the incursion.

“The Turkish military is fully aware – down to explicit grid coordinate detail – of the locations of U.S. forces,” said U.S. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Turkish Defence Ministry said it had taken all measures to ensure that no U.S. base was damaged while it responded to harassment fire that originated near a U.S. base in Syria.

“There was no firing on the U.S. observation post,” it said. The firing was halted when the U.S. military alerted Turkish forces, the ministry said.

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