Turkey claims capture of key Syrian border town as offensive continues

U.S. troops stationed in Syria came under artillery fire from Turkish forces, the Department of Defense confirmed late Friday.

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By Linda Givetash

Turkish forces claimed to have taken control of a key Syrian border town Saturday as their assault against Kurdish fighters in the region continued.

The Turkish Defence Ministry said that it had seized Ras al-Ayn as part of the operation, code-named 'Peace Spring,' which began Wednesday.

NBC News has been unable to independently verify the claim.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) denied the town had been captured and appeared to be holding out in some areas, the Associated Press reported.

Turkey's push deeper into Syria comes amid widespread international criticism, fears of a resurgence of the Islamic State group and humanitarian concern for those displaced by the offensive.

The capture of the town would represent Ankara's most significant gain since President Donald Trump said he had decided to pull U.S. troops back from the area to clear the way for Turkish forces.

The move was met with criticism, which was only likely to intensify after U.S. troops stationed in the region came under artillery fire from Turkish forces late Friday.

An explosion occurred within a few hundred yards outside a security zone known by the Turks to have U.S. forces present, Navy Capt. Brook DeWalt, director of Defense Press Operations, told NBC News.

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No American troops were injured in the incident, near Kobani in northeastern Syria.

The U.S. is now warning Turkey to avoid any actions that could result in “immediate defensive action,” DeWalt said.

On Saturday Trump released $50 million in assistance to Syria "to protect persecuted ethnic and religious minorities," according to a statement from the office of White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham.

"This funding will provide emergency financial assistance to Syrian human rights defenders, civil society organizations, and reconciliation efforts directly supporting ethnic and religious minority victims of the conflict," the office said. "Ensuring the freedom and safety of ethnic and religious minorities remains a top priority for this Administration."

Turkish troops are fighting the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are led by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist group by the United States.

But the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been crucial U.S. allies in the war on the Islamic State militant group.

The SDF has held more than 10,000 ISIS members in detention centers and prison camps, but they said they are being forced to abandon some of those positions to fight the Turkish invasion.

They reported that a facility in the border town of Qamishli was struck by Turkish artillery on Friday and some prisoners had attempted to escape.

But Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces continued to push ahead, the Anadolu news agency reported early Saturday. They reached a strategic highway that connects the Syrian towns of Manbij and Qamishli — the de facto capital of Syrian Kurdistan.

At least 100,000 people have been displaced within the first three days of the attack, according to the United Nations' Humanitarian Affairs Office.

The number of casualties since the violence began has varied between sources and NBC News has been unable to independently verify any claims.

Turkey’s defense ministry stated early Saturday that 415 “terrorists” have been killed since launching its military operation.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Saturday that at least 21 civilians have been killed, including six children.

The U.S. set down red lines for the offensive Thursday that would trigger economic sanctions, including ethnic cleansing and indiscriminate fire directed at civilian populations.

“If Turkey acts in a way that is disproportionate, inhumane, or otherwise goes beyond the lines the President has, in his own mind, the United States is willing to impose significant cost,” said a senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Aziz Akyavas , Mac William Bishop, Mosheh Gains and Nancy Ing contributed.