By Mert Ozkan
AKCAKALE, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkey attacked Kurdish militia positions in northeast Syria on Wednesday, pounding them with air strikes and artillery barrages in a cross-border military operation just days after U.S. troops pulled back from the area.
Thousands of people fled the Syrian town of Ras al Ain towards Hasaka province, held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. The Turkish air strikes had killed two civilians and wounded two others, the SDF said.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, announcing the start of the action, said the aim was to eliminate what he called a "terror corridor" on Turkey's southern border.
But U.S. President Donald Trump, who ordered the U.S. pullout last week in an abrupt policy shift, said the offensive was "a bad idea" and he did not endorse it. He expected Turkey to protect civilians and religious minorities and to prevent a humanitarian crisis, he said.
European countries called on Ankara to halt the operation and Egypt called it "a blatant and unacceptable attack on a brotherly Arab state".
Turkey had been poised to enter northeast Syria since the U.S. troops who had been fighting with Kurdish-led forces against Islamic State started to leave in what Trump critics called a betrayal of Washington's allies.
A Turkish security source told Reuters the military offensive, dubbed "Operation Peace Spring", opened with air strikes. Turkish howitzer fire then hit bases and ammunition depots of the Kurdish YPG militia.
The artillery strikes, which also targeted YPG gun and sniper positions, were aimed at sites far from residential areas, the source said.
A Reuters cameraman in the Turkish town of Akcakale saw several explosions across the border in the Syrian town of Tel Abyad. A witness said people were fleeing en masse.
Explosions also rocked Ras al Ain, just across the border from the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar, a CNN Turk reporter said. The sound of warplanes could he heard above and smoke was rising from buildings in Ras al Ain, he said.
The SDF said military positions and civilians in the city of Qamishli and the town of Ain Issa - more than 30 km (20 miles) inside Syria - had been hit, and said there were initial reports of civilian casualties.
Turkish media said mortar and rocket fire from Syria struck the Turkish border towns of Ceylanpinar and Nusaybin. There were no immediate reports of casualties there.
From Akcakale, the red flare of rockets could be seen being fired after dark across the border to Tel Abyad, as well as flames near the town. In Ras al Ain, burning tyres sent black columns of smoke into the sky, in an apparent effort to thwart attacks.
World powers fear the Turkish action could open a new chapter in Syria's eight-year-old war and worsen regional turmoil. Ankara has said it intends to create a "safe zone" in order to return millions of refugees to Syrian soil.
In the build-up to the anticipated offensive, Syria had said it was determined to confront any Turkish aggression by all legitimate means.
Turkey views Kurdish YPG fighters in northeast Syria as terrorists because of their ties to militants waging an insurgency inside Turkey. An influx of non-Kurdish Syrians would help it secure a buffer against its main security threat.
Amid deepening humanitarian concerns, Germany said Turkey's action would lead to further instability and could strengthen Islamic State, which the U.S.-armed SDF helped defeat in Syria.
The SDF halted operations against Islamic State because of the Turkish offensive, two U.S. officials and a Kurdish source said. One of the officials said U.S. training of forces in Syria had also been affected.
The United Nations Security Council will meet on Thursday at the request of European countries, who expressed alarm at the offensive, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that the bloc would not fund Ankara's plans in the region.
"If the plan involves the creation of a so-called safe zone, don’t expect the EU to pay for any of it," he told the EU parliament.
Kurdish-led forces have denounced the U.S. policy shift as a "stab in the back". Trump has denied he had abandoned the forces, the most capable U.S. partners in fighting Islamic State in Syria.
The Kurdish-led authority in northern Syria declared a state of "general mobilization" before calling on its people to head towards the border "to fulfil their moral duty and show resistance in these sensitive, historic moments".
Erdogan's communications director Fahrettin Altun said Turkey had no ambition in northeastern Syria except to neutralize the threat against Turkish citizens and to liberate the local people from what he called "the yoke of armed thugs".
Turkey was taking over leadership of the fight against Islamic State in Syria, he said.
Turkey's Demiroren news agency said Turkish-backed Syrian rebels had travelled from northwest Syria to Turkey in preparation for the incursion.
"Strike them with an iron fist, make them taste the hell of your fires," the National Army told its fighters.
RUSSIA CALLS FOR DIALOGUE
Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's strongest foreign ally, urged dialogue between Damascus and Syria's Kurds on solving issues in northeast Syria.
"We will do our best to support the start of such substantive talks," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.
On Monday, Erdogan said U.S. troops started to pull back after a call he had with Trump. The U.S. president's decision to withdraw troops has rattled allies, including France and Britain, two of Washington's main partners in the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State.
The operation also had an impact on the Turkish lira, which slid 0.5%, breaking through what traders called a key support level of 5.85 against the dollar to its weakest level since August.
(Additional reporting by Orhan Coksun, Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay in Ankara, Dominic Evans in Istanbul, Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut, Phil Stewart in Washington, Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by William Maclean and Angus MacSwan)