Turkey has launched an offensive into north-eastern Syria

Turkey has launched an offensive into north-eastern Syria, unleashing air strikes and artillery barrages aimed at US-backed Kurdish forces who control the region.

Video footage showed civilians fleeing towns with columns of smoke rising in the background and jet trails visible in the sky. Activists and observers say at least seven civilians have been killed so far.

Turkey’s offensive was triggered by a call between Donald Trump and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on Sunday, in which the Turks claim Trump handed over leadership of the campaign against Isis in Syria to Ankara. The American president announced on Sunday night that US troops would withdraw from the region.

On Wednesday, hours after the bombing had begun, Trump issued a statement mildly criticising the offensive aimed at Kurdish forces which for nearly five years fought alongside the US against Isis.

“This morning, Turkey, a Nato member, invaded Syria. The United States does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea,” the statement said, before noting: “There are no American soldiers in the area.”

The UN security council is due to convene on Thursday to discuss the offensive at the request of its five current European members, but it is not expected to deliver a strong rebuke to Turkey, given tacit Russian support and US ambivalence. France was pushing for the council to at least make a joint statement but it was unclear on Wednesday whether even that would be possible.

The Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, called on Turkey to act with restraint and “ensure that the gains we have made in the fight against Isis are not jeopardised. I will discuss this issue with President Erdoğan Friday.”

The Turkish leader marked the launch of the offensive, dubbed Operation Peace Spring, with a tweet, saying that it was being conducted by Turkish and Turkish-backed Syrian militias, against Kurdish forces and Isis.

“Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area,” the president wrote.

Turkey says it is seeking to establish a 20-mile (32km) deep buffer zone along the border to secure the country against the threat of what it says are Kurdish terror groups as well as Isis. It also hopes to resettle Syrian refugees in the zone.

Mustafa Bali, spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – which Ankara considers an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) – confirmed shortly after Erdoğan’s announcement that Turkish warplanes had already begun attacking the region, creating a “huge panic among people”. An SDF soldier shared photographs of plumes of smoke, which he said was the result of airstrikes and artillery fire near the border town of Ras al-Ayn.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, said civilians in Ras al-Ayn and neighbouring villages had begun fleeing deeper inside the Kurdish-held region. Qamishli and Ain Issa, key administrative centres for the SDF, were hit by airstrikes, a spokesman said.

In his statement on Thursday, Trump said: “Turkey has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place – and we will hold them to this commitment.

“In addition, Turkey is now responsible for ensuring all Isis fighters being held captive remain in prison and that Isis does not reconstitute in any way, shape, or form,.”