Turkey bombs US forces ‘by mistake’

 

A contingent of US Special Forces has been caught up in Turkish shelling against US-backed Kurdish positions in northern Syria, days after President Donald Trump told his Turkish counterpart he would withdraw US troops from certain positions in the area.

According to Newsweek, somewhere between 15 and 100 US troops were under attack - apparently by mistake.

Quoting an Iraqi Kurdish intelligence official and a senior Pentagon official, Newsweek reports that Special Forces operating on Mashtenour hill in the majority-Kurdish city of Kobani fell under artillery fire from Turkish forces conducting their so-called "Operation Peace Spring" against Kurdish fighters backed by the US - but considered terrorist organisations by Turkey.

The senior Pentagon official said that Turkish forces should be aware of US positions "down to the grid."

The official could not specify the exact number of personnel present, but indicated they were "small numbers below company level," so somewhere between 15 and 100 troops.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had long warned he would storm the border to establish a so-called "safe zone" and, after the White House announced Sunday that U.S. troops would stand aside, he launched the operation earlier this week.

PENTAGON URGES TURKEY TO STOP SYRIAN INCURSION

The Pentagon has urged Turkey to halt its military incursion into Syria, saying it threatens progress in combating the Islamic State group and risks harm to US troops.

It was the Pentagon's most explicit criticism of the Turkish operation, which began on Wednesday as a campaign against a Syrian Kurd-led militia that has partnered with US forces over the past five years to fight the Islamic State.

It came as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin warned of "very significant" new sanctions against Turkey amid its Syria Invasion.

"These are very powerful sanctions. We hope we don't have to use them. But we can shut down the Turkish economy if we need to," he said.

US President Donald Trump has called the invasion a "bad idea" and held out the possibility of the US mediating a settlement.

The Pentagon had said before the operation began that the US military would not support it, but it had not openly criticised the invasion.

The US pulled about 30 special operations troops out of observation posts along the invasion route on the Syrian border.

In a written statement, the chief Pentagon spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, said that in a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, Defence Secretary Mark Esper "made it clear" that the US opposes the incursion.

Mr Hoffman said Esper told Defence Minister Hulusi Akar that his government's military actions "place at risk" the progress made to defeat the extremists, and Sec. Esper urged Turkey to stop its incursion. "While the secretary reaffirmed we value our strategic bilateral relationship, this incursion risks serious consequences for Turkey," Mr Hoffman said. "The secretary also reiterated his strong concern that, despite US force protection measures, Turkey's actions could harm U.S. personnel in Syria."

The US has about 1000 troops in Syria.

"As part of the call, Secretary Esper strongly encouraged Turkey to discontinue actions in northeastern Syria in order to increase the possibility that the United States, Turkey and our partners could find a common way to de-escalate the situation before it becomes irreparable," Mr Hoffman said.

Children on both sides were among the dead as Turkey's invasion of Kurdish-controlled areas of north eastern Syria intensified.

Turkish mortars killed one 12-year-old boy and ripped off a young girl's leg as Turkey pommeled Kurdish-held towns on the second day of its assault on northern Syria.

Mohammad Yusuf Hussein and his seven-year-old sister Sara were hit in a strike on Qamishli, the de facto capital of the unrecognised Kurdish statelet of Rojava.

The Kurdish-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) posted confronting images of a distressed seven-year-old girl who died in a hospital in Qamishli, as a result of Turkish bombs.

It comes as more than 60,000 people flee the fighting in an area where Turkey wants to create a buffer zone, with warnings that millions could be affected by the fighting.

On the other side of the border, Turkish authorities said four children including a nine-month old baby had been killed in retaliatory fire.

People help a wounded boy as they take cover after mortars fired from Syria, in Akcakale, Turkey. Picture: HA via AP
People help a wounded boy as they take cover after mortars fired from Syria, in Akcakale, Turkey. Picture: HA via AP

Turkey had rained bombs down on 181 targets in the first two days of fighting and had removed parts of a concrete wall to allow ground troops to file in.

Turkey has said it had killed more than 174 "terrorists" but the SDF has played down those numbers.

Kurdish troops have been weakened after the United States (US) withdrew troops, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took as a sign to step up his military efforts.

People run to take cover after mortars fired from Syria, in Akcakale, Turkey. Picture: HA via AP
People run to take cover after mortars fired from Syria, in Akcakale, Turkey. Picture: HA via AP

Meanwhile, the US has transferred at least 50 key Islamic State (IS) prisoners to Iraqi forces amid fears they will escape while Kurdish fighters take on Turkish forces.

The SDF was a key ally of the US in the fight against IS and has more than 12,000 of their fighters locked up in prisons under their guard.

Two British IS prisoners El Shafee Elsheikh, 30, and Alexanda Amon Kotey, 35, who were dubbed The Beatles because of their English accents, were transferred into US custody earlier this week before the fighting began.

They were expected to be extradited to the US to face charges in Virginia over the alleged involvement in executions of western prisoners and may face the death penalty.

US president Donald Trump has faced criticism over his decision to withdraw from Syria, but he responded by saying the Kurds had not helped the US in Normandy during World War II.

American actor George Clooney hit out at Mr Trump, saying the US should have stayed.

"I'm horrified at the idea we would say that after having Kurds fight our battle for us - because we don't want to send troops there - and then say, 'OK, you're on your own," he said.

The United Nations Security Council failed to agree on a common statement on Turkey's aggression after a meeting today.

However, the five European council members who called the meeting urged Turkey in a joint statement afterwards "to cease the unilateral military action".

The UK, France, Germany, Belgium and Poland warned that "renewed armed hostilities in the northeast will further undermine the stability of the whole region, exacerbate civilian suffering and provoke further displacements".

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) warned the scale of the crisis could be a disaster.

"In the last 24 hours it's reported that more than 64,000 people fled their homes in northeast Syria. If the offensive continues it's possible a total of 300,000 people could be displaced to already overstretched camps and towns still recovering from the fight against IS," Misty Buswell, IRC's policy director for the Middle East, said.

People take cover after mortars fired from Syria, in Akcakale, Turkey. Picture: HA via AP
People take cover after mortars fired from Syria, in Akcakale, Turkey. Picture: HA via AP

But Mr Erdogan delivered a fiery defence of his invasion, dismissing a chorus of global criticism and threatening to send more than three million Syrian refugees into Europe.

Mr Erdogan said the operation would allow Syrian refugees to return to their own homes and promised that IS prisoners being held in northeast Syria would not escape.

"They are not honest, they just make up words. We, however, create action and that is our difference," he said.

Singling out the EU and Arab powers Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which both condemned Turkey's operation, Mr Erdogan said they should "step aside" and let Turkey get on with the battle.

Turkey-backed FSA fighters heading toward the Syrian town of Tal Abyad from the Turkish border town of Akcakale. Picture: DHA via AP
Turkey-backed FSA fighters heading toward the Syrian town of Tal Abyad from the Turkish border town of Akcakale. Picture: DHA via AP

"Let me start with Saudi Arabia," Mr Erdogan told members of his AK Party in the Turkish capital Ankara.

"Look in the mirror first. Who brought Yemen to this state?" he asked, referring to Riyadh's military intervention in Yemen's ruinous civil war.

"Did tens of thousands of people not die in Yemen?"

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has directly lobbied the Turkish Government to end the attack, saying the SDF had been key allies in the fight against IS.

Turkey wants to create a 30km buffer zone on its border, the range of Kurdish rockets.

The Turkish Government says it plans to resettle some of the 3.6 million refugees who entered its borders since the start of the Syrian civil war.