ISTANBUL (Dispatches) -- Turkey intensified its air and artillery strikes in northeast Syria on Friday, escalating an incursion that has drawn warnings of humanitarian catastrophe.
The incursion, launched after President Donald Trump gave it a green light, has opened a new front in the eight-year-old Syria war and drawn fierce international criticism.
A war monitor gave a death toll approaching 100 from the first days of the aggression, including 17 civilians as well as dozens of Kurdish fighters and Turkish-backed militants. Turkey says nine civilians have been killed on its side of the frontier by retaliatory shelling.
In Washington, Trump - fending off accusations that he abandoned the Kurds, loyal allies of the United States - suggested Washington could mediate in the conflict. He also raised the possibility of imposing sanctions on Turkey, a move demanded by Republican congressional critics of his policy.
Pentagon chief Mark Esper told his Turkish counterpart that the incursion "risks serious consequences for Turkey” and Ankara must help find a way to "de-escalate the situation before it becomes irreparable”.
On Friday, Turkish warplanes and artillery struck around Syria’s Ras al-Ain, one of two border towns that have been the focus of the offensive.
Hundreds of kilometers further east along the frontier, Kurdish militants reported heavy shelling in Qamishli, the biggest city in the Kurdish-controlled region of northeastern Syria. Authorities there said a car bomb had blown up in the city, killing three civilians and wounding nine. Video showed smoke rising from the wreckage.
A convoy of 20 armored vehicles carrying Turkish-allied militants entered Syria from Ceylanpinar and advanced towards Ras al-Ain.
Some 120 km (75 miles) to the west, Turkish howitzers resumed shelling near the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, a witness said.
Overnight, clashes erupted at different points along the entire stretch of border from Ain Diwar at the Iraqi frontier to Ain al-Arab, more than 400 km to the west. "The whole border was on fire,” Qamishlo said.
Turkish forces have seized nine villages near Ras al-Ain and Tel Abyad, said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the so-called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war.
At least 41 fighters with the SDF, 34 Turkey-backed militants and 17 civilians have been killed in Syria, according to the Observatory. The SDF said 22 of its fighters were killed on Wednesday and Thursday.
Turkey says it has killed hundreds of SDF fighters and two Turkish soldiers have been killed. Turkish authorities said two people were killed and three wounded by mortar shelling in the border town of Suruc, raising the death toll to nine civilians killed on the Turkish side.
Turkey says the purpose of its assault is to defeat the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as an enemy for its links to insurgents in Turkey. It says it aims to set up a "safe zone” inside Syria, where it can resettle many of the 3.6 million refugees it has been hosting.
President Tayyip Erdogan criticized Europe for failing to support the Turkish offensive and threatened to send refugees to Europe if the EU did not back him. That prompted a furious response from the EU.
"We will never accept that refugees are weaponized and used to blackmail us,” European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted. France said sanctions against Turkey would be discussed at an EU summit next week.
The International Rescue Committee aid group says around 70,000 people in Syria have fled in the first days of the campaign.
The Kurdish YPG is the main fighting element of the SDF, which has acted as the principal allies of the United States.
The SDF now holds most of the territory that once made up Daesh’s "caliphate” in Syria, and has been keeping thousands of terrorists from the Takfiri group in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.
A camp sheltering more than 7,000 displaced people in northern Syria is to be evacuated and there are talks on moving a second camp for 13,000 people, including militants’ families, after both were shelled, Kurdish-led authorities said.
Two Turkish officials said Ankara believed there were more than 1,000 Daesh, mostly foreigners, held in the part of Syria where Turkey aims to set up its safe zone. Turkey would aim to send them to their countries of origin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Friday the Turkish military incursion into northeastern Syria could lead to the revival of the Daesh terrorist group in the region.
Putin issued the warning in a televised address during a visit to Turkmenistan, saying that members of the Takfiri outfit held in northeast Syria could escape from jail as a result of the Turkish offensive.
"I'm not sure whether the Turkish army will be able to take this under control -- and how soon," Putin was quoted as saying by the Russia’s Interfax news agency. "This is a real threat to us."
The incursion has drawn strong condemnation from the Syrian government which denounced it as an infringement on its national sovereignty.
An official from the Syrian foreign ministry told the government news agency, SANA that Syria will confront Turkish "aggression" in the Arab country.
"The task of protecting the Syrian people is the duty of the Syrian Arab Army and the Syrian state, and no one else," the official said.
Regional states such as Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia as well the Europeans have voiced their opposition to the Turkish move.
In a statement on Thursday, the Iranian Foreign Ministry called for "the immediate cessation of attacks and the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Syria."