The Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria has accused Turkey of violating a US-brokered ceasefire that came into effect overnight, as fighters from both sides clashed in and around a border town that has been one of the fiercest fronts in the Turkish invasion.
Ras al-Ayn emerged as an immediate test for the five-day ceasefire agreed by Washington and Ankara.
Before the deal’s announcement, Turkish-backed forces had encircled the town and were battling fierce resistance from Kurdish fighters inside.
The Syrian Kurds raised further uncertainty over a ceasefire deal that was already vague on key points and left significant questions unanswered. The self-rule administration said some provisions of the deal “need further discussion with the United States”.
It did not specify which provisions, but the Kurds have not publicly committed to a central term of the deal — a pullout of their fighters from the border region.
A spokesman for the Kurdish-led fighters said on Friday they were not withdrawing from Ras al-Ayn because Turkish forces were still besieging and shelling it.
Criticism of the ceasefire — which President Donald Trump called “a great day for civilisation” — mounted.
EU Council president Donald Tusk said it was “not a ceasefire, it is a demand for the capitulation of the Kurds”, and called on Turkey to immediately halt its operation in north-east Syria.
French President Emmanuel Macron called the Turkish operation “madness”.
But Mr Trump claimed there was only “minor sniper and mortar fire”, and that both sides want the ceasefire.
Turkish shelling hit in and around Ras al-Ayn on Friday morning, raising columns of smoke.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Rojava Information Centre said fighting continued into the afternoon as Turkish-backed Syrian fighters clashed with Kurdish forces in villages on the outskirts of Ras al-Ayn.
The Kurdish-led force said five of its fighters were killed and a number of civilians wounded in a Turkish air strike on one of the villages.
Other activists reported a new exodus of civilians from the villages. Gun battles and shelling continued around a hospital in the centre of Ras al-Ayn, and those injured inside could not be evacuated, said Mustafa Bali, spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
The Kurdish Red Crescent said it was unable to enter the town to evacuate the wounded because of fighting.
The Kurdish-led administration said Turkey “has not adhered with the ceasefire until now in some areas”, particularly in Ras al-Ayn.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denied any fighting took place on Friday and said Kurdish fighters had begun withdrawing, a claim the Kurds denied.
The ceasefire agreement — reached after hours of negotiations in Turkey’s capital between Mr Erdogan and US vice president Mike Pence — requires the Kurdish fighters to vacate a stretch of territory in Syria along the Turkish border. That arrangement would largely solidify the position Turkey has gained after days of fighting.
The Turks and the Kurds appear to disagree on the size of the area covered by the ceasefire. Turkey calls it a “pause” not a ceasefire.
It remains unclear if the Kurdish-led force was on board with pulling back even if a pause in fighting takes hold.
Mr Pence said the US was already co-ordinating with it on a withdrawal, but American sway with the group has diminished after Mr Trump turned his back on it by withdrawing US soldiers from north-east Syria, opening the way for Turkey to launch its invasion 10 days ago.
The Kurdish-led force’s commander, Mazloum Abdi, said on Thursday night that it would abide by the ceasefire and “do our best to make it successful”. He did not mention any withdrawal.