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U.N. Security Council concerned about northeast Syria, U.S., China, Europeans urge ceasefire

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations Security Council voiced concern on Wednesday over the risks of a deterioration in the humanitarian situation in northeast Syria and the escape of Islamic State fighters, but made no reference to a Turkish assault on U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish militia that began a week ago.

The 15-member council agreed to the brief statement after meeting for the second time behind closed doors since the Turkish operation began. The offensive has forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee and raised doubt about the fate of thousands of Islamic State fighters in Kurdish jails.

The council said nothing on northeast Syria after it met last Thursday. Council statements are agreed by consensus and Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said at the time the council “should take into account other aspects of the Syrian crisis not just the Turkish operation.”

After Wednesday’s meeting the United States, China and the council’s five European members - Britain, France, Germany, Poland and Belgium - all separately called on Turkey to halt its attack, but the Security Council statement did not.

“China calls for the immediate end of military actions by Turkey,” China’s U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun told reporters. “The Security Council discussions, in one way or another, are still going on so let’s work toward the right solution.”

Nebenzia said that the Security Council did not discuss calling for a ceasefire in northeast Syria. Syrian ally Russia has vetoed 13 Security Council resolutions since the Syrian war began in 2011 and has long called for the United States to withdraw its forces from Syria.

“The Turkish side tells us that they will respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria,” Nebenzia told reporters. “We understand the Turkish national security concerns but we believe that the operation that they’re conducting should be proportionate to the aims that they declare.”

The Turkish assault forced the United States to pull its forces out of northern Syria. Syrian government forces, backed by Washington’s adversaries Russia and Iran, have swiftly advanced into territory formerly patrolled by U.S. troops.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft said Washington called on Turkey to “cease undermining the campaign to defeat ISIS, cease endangering civilians ... cease its offensive and declare a ceasefire immediately.”

A crackdown by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on pro-democracy protesters in 2011 led to civil war. Islamic State, sometimes called ISIS or ISIL, used the chaos to seize territory in Syria and Iraq. The United States led a coalition in Syria to oust Islamic State.

The U.N. Security Council “expressed deep concern over the risk of the dispersion of terrorists from U.N.-designated groups, including ISIL, and are also very concerned over the risk of a further deterioration of the humanitarian situation.”

Turkey has justified its action under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which covers an individual or collective right to self-defense against armed attack. It told the Council in a letter last week that its military operation in northern Syria would be “proportionate, measured and responsible.”

Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Howard Goller and Grant McCool