Hundreds of relatives of foreign jihadists escaped from a displacement camp in northern Syria, Kurdish authorities said Sunday, as the number of people fleeing a Turkish assault soared to 130,000.
Fighting raged along the border on the fifth day of an offensive that has provoked an international outcry and left dozens of civilians and fighters dead.
Kurdish authorities and foreign powers have warned repeatedly that the hostilities could undermine the fight against the Islamic State group (IS) and allow jihadists to break out of captivity.
The Kurdish administration in northern Syria said that Turkish bombardment near a camp for the displaced led to nearly 800 relatives of IS members fleeing.
Fighting has engulfed the area since Wednesday when Ankara launched a long-threatened offensive against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who it considers “terrorists” linked to insurgents inside Turkey.
US President Donald Trump has been accused of abandoning a loyal ally in the fight against IS after ordering American troops to pull back from the border.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor reported on Sunday that 14 more civilians had been killed in fighting.
More than 50 civilians have now died on the Syrian side, with Turkish reports putting the number of civilians dead from Kurdish shelling inside Turkey at 18.
The Observatory said pro-Ankara fighters “executed” at least nine civilians on Saturday near the Syrian town of Tal Abyad.
The Kurds said a female Kurdish party official and her driver were among those killed.
– Humanitarian fears –
Aid groups have warned of another humanitarian disaster in Syria’s eight-year-old war if the offensive is not halted.
The UN humanitarian agency OCHA said the exodus sparked by the fighting had grown to 130,000 people and it was preparing for that figure to more than triple.
“We have moved into a planning scenario where up to 400,000 people could be displaced within and across the affected areas,” spokesman Jens Laerke told AFP.
Some 12,000 IS fighters — Syrians, Iraqis as well as foreigners from 54 countries — are detained in Kurdish prisons, according to official Kurdish statistics.
Displacement camps meanwhile host some 12,000 foreigners — 8,000 children and 4,000 women.
“The brutal military assault led by Turkey and its mercenaries is now taking place near a camp in Ain Issa, where there are thousands (of people) from families of IS,” a Kurdish administration statement said.
“Some were able to escape after bombardments that targeted” the camp.
It said the Ain Issa camp was “now without guards” and 785 relatives of IS jihadists had fled.
The SDF, a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters, was the main partner on the ground in the US-led campaign against IS.
According to the Observatory, at least 104 of its fighters have been killed since the start of the Turkish offensive.
– Fierce fighting –
According to Turkish media, Ankara aims to take control of a territory 120 kilometre (75 miles) long and 30 kilometres into Syria, up to the towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain.
Near Tal Abyad, “fierce combat” unfolded around Suluk, with Turkish air raids targeting the area, according to the Britain-based Observatory.
“The Turks are trying to take control, but there are fierce battles with our forces,” an SDF official said.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP that fighting was ongoing on the western outskirts of Ras al-Ain, where Kurdish forces had pushed back Turkish forces and its Syrian rebel allies.
“Ankara’s forces and pro-Turkish rebels pulled back in several areas where they had advanced the day before,” the Observatory head said.
On Saturday, Ankara announced that it had overrun the town, but the SDF denied the claim.
Another SDF official, stationed in Ras al-Ain, also reported the withdrawal of Turkish forces.
SDF fighters have taken mounting losses against the vastly superior military firepower of Turkey, which has defied mounting international protests and the threat of US sanctions in pressing on with its offensive.