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Turkey begins offensive in Syria

AKCAKALE, Turkey — Turkey launched airstrikes, fired artillery and began a ground offensive against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria on Wednesday after U.S. troops pulled back from the area, paving the way for an assault on forces that have long been allied with the United States.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the start of the campaign, which followed an abrupt decision Sunday by U.S. President Donald Trump that American troops would step aside to allow for the operation.

Trump’s move drew bipartisan opposition at home and represented a shift in U.S. policy that essentially abandoned the Syrian Kurdish fighters who have been America’s only allies in Syria fighting the Islamic State group. After Erdogan announced the offensive, Trump called the operation “a bad idea.”

There were signs of panic in the streets of residential areas close to the borders as civilians fled on foot, in cars and with rickshaws piled with mattresses and a few belongings. They included people who’d fled from the Islamic State group only a few years ago.

At least seven civilians and one member of the Kurdish-led force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces were killed in the Turkish bombardment, Kurdish activists and a Syria war monitor said.

Near the town of Qamishli, plumes of smoke rose from an area close to the border after activists reported an explosion nearby. By nighttime, there were fires in one of the town’s neighborhoods, apparently ignited by the shelling.

Turkey’s Defense Ministry said Turkish ground forces, joined by allied Syrian opposition forces, had moved across the border into Syria. Shortly after, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said its fighters had repelled the Turkish ground attack in Tal Abyad.

Earlier, a U.S. defense official and a Kurdish official in Syria said the SDF has suspended operations against IS militants because of the Turkish operation. The officials who confirmed the suspension spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to provide details on the situation.

Turkey’s campaign — in which a NATO member is raining down bombs on an area where hundreds of U.S. troops are stationed — drew immediate criticism and calls for restraint from Europe. In his statement, Trump emphasized that there are no American soldiers in the area under attack.

“Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area,” Erdogan said in a tweet announcing what he called “Operation Peace Spring.”

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