Turkey says ground forces are advancing in northern Syria

Turkish ground forces pressed their advance against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria on Thursday, Turkey's Defense Ministry said, launching airstrikes and unleashing artillery shelling on Syrian towns and villages the length of its border.

The Turkish invasion, now in its second day, has been widely condemned around the world. In northern Syria, residents of the border areas scrambled in panic on Wednesday as they tried to get out on foot, in cars and with rickshaws piled with mattresses and a few belongings.

It was a wrenchingly familiar scenario for the many who, only a few years ago, had fled the advances on their towns and villages by the Islamic State group.

A Kurdish-led group and Syrian activists claimed Thursday that despite the heavy barrage, Turkish troops had not made much progress on several fronts they had opened over the past hours. But their claims could not be independently verified and the situation on the ground was difficult to assess.

Turkey began its offensive in northern Syria on Wednesday against Kurdish fighters with airstrikes and artillery shelling, before ground troops began crossing the border later in the day. U.S. troops pulled back from the area, paving the way for Turkey's assault on Syrian Kurdish forces.

Turkey has long threatened to attack the Kurdish fighters whom Ankara considers terrorists allied with a Kurdish insurgency in Turkey. Expectations of an invasion increased after President Donald Trump's abrupt decision Sunday to essentially abandon the Syrian Kurdish fighters, leaving them vulnerable to a Turkish offensive.

The Kurds, who have been America's only allies in Syria fighting the Islamic State group, stopped on Thursday all their operations against the IS extremists in order to focus on fighting advancing Turkish troops, Kurdish and U.S. officials said.

The Turkish Defense Ministry statement Thursday did not provide further details on the offensive but shared a brief video of commandos in action. The ministry said Turkish jets and artillery had struck 181 targets east of the Euphrates River in Syria since the incursion started.