Syria war: More than 20 Turkish tanks cross border as Jarablus in second day of offensive against Isis and Kurds
More than 20 Turkish tanks have crossed the border into Syria in the second day of a new operation to drive Isis out of strategic territory.
Rebels backed by Ankara re-took the city of Jarablus on Wednesday after entering with little resistance following a night of heavy bombardment.
The incursion has received a cautious welcome by allies in Europe, amid concerns that militias backed by Turkey will come into conflict with Kurdish groups supported by the US-led coalition.
The first clashes were reported within hours of the offensive’s launch, with the Kurdish news agency ANHA reporting minor skirmishes between members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Turkey-backed factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) south of Jarablus.
Kurdish rebels are now reported to be retreating eastwards to cross back over the Euphrates River as part of an agreement struck by the US.
The SDF, a predominantly Kurdish alliance backed by the US-led coalition, had already advanced to within a mile of Jarablus after driving Isis out of swathes of northern Syria in recent months.
But Turkey has been alarmed by the group’s success, seeing Kurdish groups including the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in control of land stretching almost the entire length of the Syrian border.
Despite being regarded as valuable allies of the US-led coalition, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called the fighters “terrorists” and linked them with the separatist PKK group, which is fighting an insurgency in south-eastern Turkey.
“Whether it's Daesh (Isis) or the YPG, they are all terrorist organisations,” he said on Wednesday.
“A terrorist organisation fighting another terrorist organisation doesn't make it innocent.”
His interior minister, Efkan Ala, raised fears of imminent conflict on after saying that the Jarablus operation would continue until the “last threat against Turkey is eliminated”, CNN Turk reported.
Groups including the Islamist Faylaq al-Sham militia and Nour al-Din al-Zenki movement, whose fighters decapitated a child on video in Aleppo last month, announced they were part of the Jarablus operation.
A commander from Faylaq al-Sham told Reuters most Isis fighters in the city had already withdrawn, with some surrendering as they arrived.
But Isis members in online messaging groups claimed the jihadists had started pulling out a week ago and regrouped elsewhere.
On a pre-planned visit to Turkey, the American Vice President attempted to calm tensions between Turkey and Kurdish groups on Wednesday.
Joe Biden said Washington had told the SDF to retreat east over the Euphrates River, adding: "They cannot, will not, and under no circumstances get American support if they do not keep that commitment.”
The Turkish foreign ministry said the pull-back had started on Thursday morning, adding that US Secretary of State John Kerry called his Turkish counterpart to confirm the move.
American warplanes have supported the Turkish offensive, codenamed Euphrates Shield, with air strikes but other members of the international coalition have made no move to get involved.
It is Turkey's first major military operation since a failed coup last month that caused thousands of members of its armed forces to be discharged amid international concern over wide-ranging purges.
It came four days after a suicide bombing blamed on Isis killed 54 people at a wedding in the south-eastern city of Gaziantep.
The foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, vowed to “completely cleanse” the terrorist group from border regions on Monday, as shock over the atrocity reverberated around the world.
Operations hope to cut off Isis supply lines and smuggling channels for its lucrative trade in oil and looted artefacts, as well as the routes used by foreign fighters to enter the so-called Islamic State.
Syria's foreign ministry condemned what it said was a breach of its sovereignty and accused Ankara of launching the incursion to replace Isis with “other terrorist groups”.
Russia, which is supporting President Bashar al-Assad, said it was deeply worried by the escalation.