AMMAN, Jordan -- Turkish-backed Syrian rebel factions overran the Syrian border town of Ras Al-Ain on Saturday, officials said, securing a strategic passageway into Syria's northeastern territories for Turkey's offensive against a U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia.
The Turkish Defense Ministry released a statement on Saturday saying Ras Al-Ain, "has been brought under control," while Turkish news channels broadcast images of the town wreathed with plumes of smoke from a barrage of artillery.
Syrian rebel factions operating under the banner of the Turkish-forged Syrian National Army released video of their fighters spraying machine gun fire down a dirt-covered thoroughfare near Ras Al-Ain's eastern entrance. Other pictures purported to show them inside the town's neighborhoods, tearing down signs for the Kurdish military force, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, and commandeering a Humvee the U.S. had supplied to the Kurds. But a spokesman for one of the factions said the rebels had yet to take control of the whole town.
Breaching Ras Al-Ain, a major objective of the Turkish offensive, comes as Turkey's operation, now in its fourth day, showed no signs of stopping despite worldwide condemnation against Ankara.
Rebels also said they had momentarily cut off part of the M4 highway, the main artery running through the Kurds' enclave to the Syrian-Iraqi border. The Syrian Democratic Forces later said they had reclaimed the area.
Since the assault began on Wednesday, 28 civilians have been killed in northeast Syria, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitor of violence in the country, and aid groups report more than 100,000 people have been forced to abandon their homes. The Kurdish-led administration put the number of displaced people at double that figure.
An additional three civilians were reported killed on Saturday on the Turkish side of the border from Kurd shelling and rocket fire, Turkish authorities said, bringing the civilian death toll there during the operation to 10.
The offensive began earlier this week after President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the border area, in effect giving his blessing for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to rout the Kurdish militiamen, who had served as the main fighting force on behalf of the U.S. in its mission to defeat Islamic State militants in Syria. Turkey, for its part, considers them a terrorist group related to Kurdish guerrillas locked in a decades-long insurgency against Ankara.
The Turks aim to establish a 20-mile strip of territory along its 566-mile border with Syria where it will relocate the 3.6 million Syrian refugees still in Turkish territories.
Though Trump insists U.S. troops are not in harm's way, as the scope of the offensive has increased, so has the chance for attacks on remaining U.S. personnel. On Friday, a number of artillery rounds landed a few hundred yards from a U.S. observation post near the Kurdish-controlled city of Kobani, the Pentagon said. No U.S. troops were wounded, and activists reported that they have since returned to the post.
Hulusi Akar, Turkey's defense minister, said on Saturday targeting the observation post by his troops "was out of the question."
Instead, Akar said, Turkish forces were returning fire on a position less than a mile from the post.
"Every kind of precaution was taken so no damage came to the U.S. base," Akar said.
This article is written by Nabih Bulos from The Los Angeles Times and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.