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Clashes persist in northeast Syria despite ceasefire agreement

Kurdish and Turkish officials say truce is 'holding' despite shelling heard in strategic border town of Ras al-Ain
A woman covers her face near Ras al-Ain along border with Turkey in Hasakah province on 16 October (AFP)

At least 14 civilians were killed in a Syrian border town on Friday as fighting continued between Turkish forces and Kurdish militias despite a five-day truce agreed between the United States and Turkey, a war monitor said.

Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP: "Air raids and shellfire on Friday killed 14 civilians in the village of Bab al-Kheir and other surrounding villages."

The monitor added that at least four fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - the de facto army of the embattled Kurdish autonomous region - were also killed in the strike, which took place as a 200-vehicle convoy made its way toward Ras Al-Ain to evacuate civilians fleeing the fighting.

The monitor also said that "sporadic artillery strikes" and shooting could be heard in the town of Ras al-Ain, though there was a lull in fighting in much of the rest of northeastern Syria.

The Turkish army and its Syrian allies were involved in the fighting with the Kurdish-dominated SDF, the British-based monitor said.

Capturing Ras al-Ain has been a major goal of the Turkish offensive since its launch on 9 October, but the town's Kurdish defenders have put up fierce resistance.

Images posted online showed a pro-Kurdish civilian convoy heading to the strategic border town to support local civilians in the Kurdish area. 

A previous convoy had been bombed by Turkish forces on Monday, according to local pro-Kurdish activists and war monitors. 

Ceasefire holding 

Despite clashes in Ras al-Ain, the ceasefire has been "holding," according to Kurdish and Turkish officials. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs described the situation on Friday as "reportedly calm in most areas, with the exception of Ras al-Ain, where shelling and gunfire continued to be reported earlier today," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday denied that any violations had taken place, and described them as "disinformation" during a news conference in Ankara.

US President Donald Trump said later on Friday that there "was minor sniper and mortar fire that was quickly eliminated," citing a phone call with Erdogan.

"He very much wants the ceasefire, or pause, to work," Trump tweeted about his Turkish counterpart.

Trump added that "some European Nations are now willing, for the first time, to take the ISIS fighters that came from their nations".

Belgium and other European countries are preparing to receive their citizens held in detention camps in northern Syria, The Guardian reported.

According to the five-day agreement, the so-called "safe zone" in Syria along the Turkish border is to be primarily enforced by the Turkish military, and the two sides will increase their cooperation to implement the deal.

Erdogan also said that Turkey was prepared to continue its incursion if the deal was not fully implemented.

"Until Tuesday night, till the ceasefire ends, if US delivers on the goals set out yesterday, then Operation Peace Spring will end. If not then we will continue our operation. I will be talking to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin about these issues in the coming days," Erdogan said.

But both sides have accused each other of violating the 120-hour truce after it was announced on Thursday night. 

Ilnur Cevik, an adviser to Erdogan, told the BBC: "[The Kurds] are still throwing some rockets into Turkey, but in general it is holding."

Under the deal reached after US Vice President Mike Pence flew to Ankara, Kurdish forces are required to withdraw from a border strip 32 kilometres (20 miles) deep, which will become a buffer zone long sought by Ankara, where it plans to send millions of Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey. 

The Turkish president said Ankara aims to establish 12 observation posts in the safe zone, which he said could host 2 million Syrian refugees if it were to include the cities of Deir Al Zor and Raqqa.

The SDF said it was "ready to abide by the ceasefire" in the border strip between Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad.

Erdogan also said on Friday that it was not a problem for Russian-backed Syrian forces to enter areas cleared of Syrian-Kurdish militia, but that Turkey would respond if the Syrian governement "makes a mistake".

"The only condition is that YPG and PKK should be completely cleared in regime areas," he said.