Five Islamic State fighters have broken free from a jail in northeast Syria amid Turkish shelling, Kurdish forces have said, fuelling fears Ankara’s controversial offensive could trigger the resurgence of the group.
The detainees escaped from a prison in the Syrian border city of Qamishli, which is under heavy bombardment from Turkish forces and its Syrian rebel allies.
Marvan Qamishlo, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a key US ally, said artillery fire had pounded the area shortly before the jihadists broke free.
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Isis separately claimed responsibility for a car bombing in the same city.
It came just hours after women affiliated with Isis attacked Kurdish officers during an attempted prison break in a camp about 80km south of Qamishli.
The incident at al-Hol camp, which holds 70,000 women and children from mainly Isis families, erupted in the foreigners’ section, spokesman Qamishlo added.
As the fighting intensified even US special operations came under fire from Turkish artillery which, according to US officials struck just a few hundred metres from their position near the Syrian city of Kobani.
While there was no indication the attack was deliberate, Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General, told reporters at the Pentagon that Turkey had been told of Americans positions in Syria.
“The Turkish military is fully aware – down to explicit grid coordinate detail – of the locations of US forces,” he said.
A senior Pentagon official told Newsweek the Turkish shelling was so heavy “US personnel considered firing back in self-defence”. There are approximately 1000 US soldiers in Syria.
On Wednesday Turkey launched a cross-border incursion against the US-backed SDF it labels a “terror group” for its links to Kurdish group PKK, which is outlawed in Turkey.
The offensive began just days after President Donald Trump controversially announced the US would be pulling back troops and would not hinder a Turkish incursion, an action seen as abandoning their Kurdish allies.
Ankara has faced mounting criticism from its western allies and rights groups that have spoken of a brewing “humanitarian catastrophe” as well as the possible rebirth of Isis.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, was the latest world leader to warn that thousands of captured Isis fighters held by the Syrian Kurdish militia “could just run away” in the fighting.
The SDF – the target of Turkey’s assault – were the US’s main ally in fighting against the global jihadi group and lost some 11,000 fighters in the years-long conflict.
The militia currently holds some 12,000 captured Isis fighters, of whom around 1,000 are from European countries. Most were captured in the dying days of the Isis caliphate, the last remnants of which were destroyed by the SDF with US backing.
The SDF has repeatedly warned that if it is forced to divert troops to the frontline against Turkey, it will be unable to guard Isis jails and camps.
At least 26 civilians, including four children, have been killed on both sides since the conflict erupted three days ago.
Turkey reported four of its soldiers have also died on the battlefield. Monitoring group say just over 40 have been killed on the other side.
At least 100,000 people have already fled their homes, according to the United Nations, which said only one national hospital was still operating, while markets, schools, clinic and water stations had been hit in the fighting.
On Friday Kurdish forces were forced to evacuate a camp near to the border that is sheltering more than 7,000 displaced people and a second camp for 13,000 people including families of Isis fighters, after both were hit by shelling.
Turkey’s defence minister said that Turkey’s troops had advanced up to 8km into northern Syria.
Monitoring groups said that Turkish-led forces have captured at least 11 villages and have surrounded Kurdish-held towns of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn.
President Trump has been blamed for “greenlighting” the operation, after announcing on Sunday that US troops would not be present in the area where Turkey intended to attack and neither would they hinder it.
The SDF called the action a “stab in the back” saying they had only just dismantled key military defences along the Syria-Turkey border as part of a US-penned security arrangement.
The White House and other branches of the government have repeatedly denied approving Mr Erdogan’s offensive.
The Pentagon said on Friday that Ankara’s actions were damaging US-Turkey relations and tried to reassure the US’s Kurdish partners they had not abandoned them.
But senior US state department officials in a press briefing the day before admitted they were “extremely distressed” by the pullback of US troops, calling it a “very big mistake”.
One unnamed official said: “I’m right up there with the Saudis and [Israeli prime minister] Bibi Netanyahu. This was a very big mistake and it has very big implications for all of our security.”
The official added: “I don’t know of anybody who isn’t upset with it. But I also don’t know why anybody thinks that we gave the Turks a green light.”
The International Committee of The Red Cross said that there are more than 100,000 people currently being hosted in displacement camps that rely on humanitarian aid and so are at serious risk.
Save The Children, meanwhile, sounded the alarm about access to 8,000 foreign children, held in camps for Isis suspects and fighters in the area.
The UK, the European Union, most of the US’s allies in the Middle East including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE as well as Finland, Denmark and India have condemned Turkey’s military operation.
In Washington dozens of President Trump’s fellow Republicans in the House of Representatives said they would try to introduce legislation to impose sanctions against Turkey. French officials on Friday signalled the EU may consider similar measures.
Turkey’s foreign ministry hit back at the mounting criticism saying allegations of a humanitarian crisis and mass displacement were “fabricated in order to discredit Turkey’s counterterrorism efforts”.