LONDON — Turkish forces continued their advance into northeastern Syria Thursday after launching an air and ground offensive against Kurdish fighters, the Turkish defense ministry said in a tweet.
The Turkish defense ministry offered no further information but posted a video of Turkish troops stalking their way through the long grass west of the Euphrates river and said the operation, codenamed Peace Spring, had gone successfully.
Turkey claimed overnight it had struck 181 of what it called terrorist targets with the support of air forces and artillery units. Meanwhile, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces claimed to have repelled a Turkish ground attack in the border area of Tal Abyad. NBC News could not independently verify these claims.
Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria began on Wednesday after U.S. troops pulled back from the area to clear the way for Turkish forces.
The invasion sparked a wave of criticism from the international community, as well as from Republicans and Democrats, with many criticizing the Trump administration for abandoning its Kurdish allies.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, are led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Unity (YPG) and have been a crucial ally in the U.S.’s fight against ISIS in the region. But Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is considered a terrorist group by the United States.
The SDF claimed overnight that a prison used to hold ISIS detainees was struck during the Turkish airstrikes. NBC News could not verify the claim. The militia has repeatedly warned that Turkey’s invasion would undermine its U.S.-backed fight against ISIS.
“As a result of our work, we were able to save the international community from the threat of the ISIS. We fought together on the front lines and spend many sleepless nights,” the SDF said in a tweet. “Unfortunately our foes in the region are conspiring to destroy our people.”
The Turkish Defense Ministry said in a tweet that it was only targeting PKK, YPG and ISIS terrorists as well as their shelters, weapons and equipment.
Meanwhile, video and stills of civilians queuing up in dusty vehicles to flee the conflict zone and bombed out properties continued to circulate on social media.
Baderkhan Ahmad, a Syrian Kurdish journalist reporting from Al Qamishli, on the Syria-Turkey border, told NBC News that his hometown had been targeted overnight by Turkish mortar fire. There were clashes close to the border between Kurdish and Turkish troops, he said.
“This morning I haven’t heard the sound of bombardments but in the afternoon at something like 4 p.m. when it’s going to get dark I think then they’ll start again to shell the city,” he said by phone.
In the streets of Ras al-Ayn, one of the Syrian towns close to the Turkey border, cars raced to safety and people could be seen leaving on trucks and bringing essential belongings and blankets, the Associated Press reported.
Ahmad, who also witnessed people fleeing Ras al-Ayn, told NBC news many families were fleeing further south deeper into Syrian territory.
“We’re under attack by a country who is a member of NATO,” he said. “They’ve just left us when we’re done with furthering their interests.”
Saphora Smith reported from London; Aziz Akyavas reported from Akçakale, Turkey
Aziz Akyavas contributed.