AKCAKALE, Turkey (AP) — Turkey pressed its air and ground assault against U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in northern Syria on Thursday for a second day, pounding the region with airstrikes and an artillery bombardment that raised columns of black smoke in a border town and sent panicked civilians scrambling to get out.

Amid the fierce fighting, residents fled with their belongings loaded into cars, pickup trucks and motorcycle rickshaws, while others escaped on foot. The U.N. refugee agency said tens of thousands were on the move, and aid agencies warned that nearly a half-million people near the border were at risk.

It was a wrenchingly familiar scene for many who had fled the militants of the Islamic State group only a few years ago.

There were casualties on both sides: Turkish officials in two border provinces said mortar fire from Syria killed at least six civilians, including a 9-month-old boy and three girls under 15. On the Syrian side, seven civilians and eight Kurdish fighters have been killed since the operation began, according to activists in Syria.

The Turkish offensive was launched three days after U.S. President Donald Trump opened the way by pulling American troops from their positions near the border alongside their Kurdish allies.

At a time when Trump faces an impeachment inquiry, the move drew swift criticism from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, along with many national defense experts, who say it has endangered not only the Kurds and regional stability but U.S. credibility as well. The Syrian Kurdish militia was the only U.S. ally in the campaign that brought down the Islamic State group in Syria.

Trump warned Turkey to act with moderation and safeguard civilians. But the opening barrage showed little sign of holding back: The Turkish Defense Military said its jets and artillery had struck 181 targets so far.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the military intends to move 19 miles into northern Syria and that its operation will last until all “terrorists are neutralized.”

More than a dozen columns of thick smoke rose in and around the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, one of the offensive’s first main targets. Turkish officials said the Kurdish militia has fired dozens of mortars into Turkish border towns, including Akcakale.

As the shelling intensified, cars packed with civilians crowded a bridge linking Syria and Iraq.

“When we came, there were about four lanes of cars on the road and a 1-kilometer-long queue of cars,” said Murad Hassan, a Syrian Kurd from Qamishli.

A Kurdish-led group and Syrian activists said that despite the bombardment, Turkish troops had not made much progress on several fronts. Their claims could not be independently verified.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said 109 “terrorists” were killed, a reference to the Syrian Kurdish fighters. He did not elaborate, and reports from the area did not indicate anything remotely close to such a large number of casualties.

Erdogan also warned the European Union not to call Ankara’s incursion into Syria an “invasion.” He threatened, as he has in the past, to “open the gates” and let Syrian refugees flood into Europe.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish forces halted all operations against IS in order to focus on fighting Turkish troops, Kurdish and U.S. officials said. The Syrian Kurdish fighters, along with U.S. troops, have been involved in mopping-up operations against IS fighters in the desert after their territorial hold was toppled earlier this year.

Ankara says the Kurdish militia is linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has led an insurgency against Turkey for 35 years. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people. The U.S. and other Western countries also deem the PKK a terrorist group.

Turkey, a NATO member, considers its operations against the Kurdish militia in Syria a matter of survival, and it also insists it won’t tolerate the virtual self-rule that the Kurds have carved out in northern Syria along the border.

The Turkish assault aims to create a corridor of control along the length of the border — a so-called “safe zone” — clearing out the Kurdish fighters. Such a zone would end the Kurds’ autonomy in the area and put much of their population under Turkish control. Ankara wants to settle 2 million Syrian refugees, mainly Arabs, in the zone.

Turkey began its offensive, dubbed “Operation Peace Spring,” on Wednesday with airstrikes and artillery shelling, followed by ground troops later in the day.

Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said their fighters repelled the Turkish ground attacks. “No advance as of now,” he tweeted Thursday.

But Maj. Youssef Hammoud, a spokesman for Turkish-backed opposition fighters in the operation, said they captured the village of Yabisa, near Tal Abyad, a spokesman for the fighters said. In a tweet, he called it “the first village to win freedom.”

Turkey’s state-run news agency says at least 11 villages were captured — nine in Tel Abyad and two in Ras al-Ayn.

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