Pride and fear as shells rain down on Turkish border town

Akçakale (Turkey) (AFP) –


Mixed feelings permeated the Turkish town of Akcakale on the border with Syria on Thursday, with families fleeing a barrage of shells while others defiantly stayed to watch troops push into Syria.

The dry streets of Akcakale were practically deserted as shelling from Syria rained down on the second day of Turkey's military operation against Kurdish forces.

Akcakale lies within sight of the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, one of the first targets of the Turkish incursion, and bore much of the Kurdish counter-fire when it began in the late morning.

Just hours before, the cafes were full of residents sipping tea and playing games while children and teenagers hung around graffitied walls near the border.

Soon all were closed and only chickens could be seen on the road as people sheltered behind concrete walls.

Families packed up their homes in the sweltering heat, with one man overheard shouting to his relatives: "Run, come quickly."

Among the buildings hit by shelling was a government office in Akcakale, after which a blood-splattered official was found lying in agony in the courtyard.

Local authorities later said five civilians, including a nine-month-old baby, had been killed and 70 injured in Sanliurfa and Mardin provinces on Thursday.

Some onlookers ignored official advice to take shelter and could be seen smoking and pouring glasses of water for each other as they serenely watched the chaos across the border, where black smoke rose over the horizon.

But no amount of confidence and faith was enough to stop the young men immediately ducking after a rocket hit a building just metres away.

Officials from Turkey's AFAD emergency authority were also in the town, waiting to administer aid to anyone in need.

- 'Won't go anywhere' -

Turkey has vowed to destroy the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) which controls much of northeastern Syria, and set up a "safe zone" for the return of Syrian refugees.

Before the shelling began, smiling children were waving the Turkish flag on the main road leading to Akcakale, while a crowd welcomed members of the Free Syrian Army -- a coalition of militants armed and funded by Ankara.

Many gave their convoy the ultra-nationalist hand sign known as the "Wolf's Greeting".

One onlooker, Hamit Alsan, insisted Turkey would capture the territory from the Kurdish militants.

"Turkey is a powerful country. If we lose a soldier, we will have 10,000 born in his place," he told AFP.

Ahmet Kaymaz, watching from the nearby customs gate, said he would not leave.

"We will not go anywhere. We will die in Akcakale," he told AFP. "Can a person leave their motherland? We will not abandon it."

A farmer, Ahmet Celikcan, who had travelled especially from his nearby village to watch the action, said he believed the government was not interested in seizing Syrian land and that the operation would allow the return of refugees.

"It is for the Syrians who are here that we want this. We do not want anything there. We don't have our eyes on any land," he said.