Gunfire, airstrikes as Turkey gains ground in key Syrian border town 

AFP Beirut, Lebanon Oct 17, 2019, 01.43 PM(IST)

Turkish forces fire missile towards the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain, from the Turkish side of the border at Ceylanpinar district in Sanliurfa on the first week of Turkey's military operation. Photograph:( AFP )

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'There have been intensive airstrikes on Ras al-Ain over the past three days,' Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said.

Turkish troops and their Syrian proxies gained ground Thursday in Ras al-Ain, a key border town where Kurdish fighters had been putting up stiff resistance, a war monitor said.

"There have been intensive airstrikes on Ras al-Ain over the past three days," Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said.

Turkish forces and the mostly Arab and Turkmen former rebels they use as a ground force had "taken about half of the town" by Thursday morning, he said.

Massively outgunned by the Turkish army and its airforce, Kurdish fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) quickly lost a long stretch of the border when the assault was launched on October 9.

They organised a defence of Ras al-Ain however with a dense network of tunnels, berms and trenches that held off Turkish forces and their proxies for about a week.

An AFP correspondent on the Turkish side of the Ras al-Ain front line said the sound of gunfire and blasts from artillery and airstrikes was constant.

Turkey wants to create a 30-kilometre-deep buffer on the Syrian side of the border to keep Kurdish militias at bay and set up a resettlement zone for some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees living on its soil.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has so far ignored international pressure to halt the offensive, which has left dozens of civilians dead and displaced more than 300,000 people, according to the Observatory.

Meanwhile, US Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo departed for Turkey on Wednesday, seeking to secure a ceasefire in the Turkish invasion of northern Syria.

"Our mission set is to see if we can get a ceasefire, see if we can get this brokered," Pompeo told reporters on his plane.

Pence and Pompeo, who travelled on different planes, were scheduled to hold talks on Thursday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but Erdogan has said he will not meet them.

Erdogan has also vowed that Turkey's operation -- which was facilitated by the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria -- would continue.

US President Donald Trump, facing with mounting criticism over the abrupt pullout, has denied he gave Erdogan a "green light" to launch operations against the Kurds.

Pence's office said the US would pursue "punishing economic sanctions" unless there was an immediate ceasefire.

After the trip to Turkey, Pompeo will stop in Jerusalem Friday to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss Syria and the "need to counter the Iranian regime's destabilizing behaviour in the region," according to a statement from the State Department.

Iran is an arch-foe for the Trump administration, which pulled out of a multinational deal on curbing Tehran's nuclear program and instead slapped punishing sanctions.

Later Friday, Pompeo will also meet with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels, the statement said.