Turkey says Kurdish militants are withdrawing from the Syrian border town of Ras al-Ayn according to an agreement brokered with the United States, days after the Turkish army launched a cross-border offensive into northeastern Syria.
“A convoy of approximately 55 vehicles entered Ras al-Ayn and a convoy of 86 vehicles departed in the direction of Tal Tamr,” the Turkish Defense Ministry said in a statement on Sunday, also releasing what it said were pictures of the evacuation in civilian vehicles.
Turkish military forces and militants of the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA), who enjoy Ankara’s patronage, on October 9 launched a cross-border invasion of northeast Syria in a declared attempt to clear Kurdish militants from the so-called People’s Protection Units (YPG) from border areas.
Ankara views the US-backed YPG as a terrorist organization tied to the homegrown Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militant group, which has been seeking an autonomous Kurdish region in Turkey since 1984.
The Syrian government has condemned the offensive as an act of aggression.
On Thursday, and after talks with US Vice President Mike Pence in Ankara, Turkey agreed to halt its Syria offensive for five days to allow the YPG militants to pull out of the border area. The Turkish government says it will end the operation altogether provided that the militants are completely cleared from the zone.
But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also threatened to resume the offensive if the militants fail to pull out.
“There are absolutely no impediments to the withdrawal” of Kurdish militants and “the activities of exiting and evacuation from the region are firmly coordinated with the US counterparts,” further said Turkey’s Defense Ministry.
Separately, a Turkish soldier was killed earlier on Sunday in an attack by Kurdish militants in the Tal Abyad border area, the ministry added.
Turkey and the Kurdish militants have also accused each other of violating the newly-reached agreement.
Ankara accuses the Kurdish militants of conducting 22 attacks since the deal. The Defense Ministry said close coordination was underway with US military officials on the issue.
Ankara says it abides by the ceasefire agreement, urging the US to use its leverage to ensure the YPG militants’ pullout.
“Since we reached this agreement with the American delegation, we have been committed to this deal. Our president has ordered our troops to maintain their positions and not engage with anybody,” said Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin in an interview with AFP.
Meanwhile, the so-called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said on Sunday that the YPG militants had completely pulled out of Ras al-Ayn.