CEYLANPINAR, Turkey - Turkey's military said it captured a key Syrian border town under heavy bombardment Saturday in its most significant gain, as its offensive against Kurdish fighters pressed into its fourth day with little sign of relenting despite mounting international criticism.
Turkish troops entered central Ras al-Ayn, according to Turkey's Defence Ministry and a war monitor group. The ministry tweeted: "Ras al-Ayn's residential centre 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 U.S. President Donald Trump cleared the way for Turkey's air and ground offensive, pulling back U.S. forces from the area and saying 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 against IS and lost 11,000 fighters in the nearly five-year battle against the extremists.
Turkish 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, also known as the SDF, called on the United States to carry out its "moral responsibilities" and close northern Syrian airspace to Turkish warplanes. The group's statement did not directly name the U.S., referring to them only as "our allies."
"We don't want them to send their soldiers to the front lines and put their lives in danger," the statement said. "What we want is for them" to close the airspace for Turkish warplanes.
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 intervene and force Turkey to stop its military operations.
The Turkish offensive was widely criticized by Damascus and some Western countries who called on Turkey to cease its military operations.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that Turkey won't stop until the Syrian Kurdish forces withdraw below a 32 kilometre (20 mile) deep line from the border.
During the capture of Ras al-Ayn's residential centre, an Associated Press journalist across the border in Turkey 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 Syrian Democratic Forces, also called 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 Ras Al-Ayn, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Ras al-Ayn is one of the biggest towns along the border and it is in the middle of the area that 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.
Earlier 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.
Turkish troops also cut the route linking the northeastern city of Hassakeh with Aleppo, Syria's largest city and once commercial centre, according to the Observatory.
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 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, reaching the Manbij-Qamishli road about 30 kilometres (19 miles) south of the Turkish border.
Turkey has said it aims to push back the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, which it considers terrorists for its links to a decadeslong Kurdish insurgency within its own borders. The YPG is a main component of the SDF.
The 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.
The Observatory that keeps track of Syria's civil war 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 28 civilians on the Syrian side. It added that Turkish troops now control 23 villages in northeastern Syria.
Turkey's defence ministry said it "neutralized" 415 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, but it was not immediately clear if there were any serious injuries or deaths. The police force known as Asayesh said the blast occurred outside the central prison in the northeastern city of Hassakeh, much of which is controlled by Kurdish forces. The Observatory said after the blast, Kurdish fighters brought reinforcements to prevent prisoners from escaping.
No one claimed responsibility but IS sleeper cells have carried out such bombings.
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.