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Syria says hundreds of Kurdish fighters withdraw from Manbij

Syria's defence ministry said a convoy of units of Kurdish fighters had left the Manbij region, heading towards the eastern bank of the Euphrates
The Syrian defence ministry showed online a video of dozens of vehicles travelling along a road carrying armed fighters, some waving YPG flags (Reuters)

The Syrian government has said hundreds of Kurdish fighters have withdrawn from Manbij near the border with Turkey, days after the Kurds appealed to Damascus for support against a threatened Turkish offensive.

"A convoy of units of Kurdish fighters comprised of more than 30 vehicles left the region of Manbij, heading towards the eastern bank of the Euphrates River," the defence ministry said online on Wednesday.

"The information [we have] indicates that nearly 400 Kurdish fighters have left Manbij so far."

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Their departure was in line with an agreement "for the return of normal life to the area of northern Syria," it said.

The ministry showed online a video of dozens of vehicles travelling along a road carrying armed fighters, some waving the flags of the Kurdish-led People's Protection Units (YPG) and its female counterpart the YPJ.

The YPG is the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an Arab-Kurdish alliance which in recent months has been battling Islamic State near the Iraqi border, the AFP news agency reported.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist group, said the fighters who withdrew from Manbij on Wednesday were not YPG fighters but belonged to other militias within the SDF.

There was no immediate comment from the YPG or the SDF on the withdrawal or on how many fighters might remain in Manbij.

President Donald Trump's surprise announcement last month of a swift US withdrawal has left Kurdish fighters exposed to a planned military operation against them by Turkey.

Speaking at the White House on Wednesday, Trump said the US should "protect the Kurds" in Syria but called the country "sand and death".

"We want to protect the Kurds but I don’t want to be in Syria forever. It's sand and it's death," he said.

Trump said he had never set a reported four-month timetable for the withdrawal of the 2,000 US troops stationed in Syria.

"We're getting out and we're getting out smart," Trump said. "I never said I'm getting out tomorrow." He declined to be specific about how long troops would remain in Syria.

Invitation to Damascus

The YPG, fearing an attack from Turkey, last week invited government forces to deploy to the key city following the announcement that US troops would leave the country.

The YPG seized Manbij from Islamic State in 2016 and US forces have continued to support the Kurdish fighters in their battle against the group.

Turkey regards the YPG as a terrorist group tied to the PKK inside its own borders, and has staged incursions into Syria in support of Syrian rebels to push it from the Turkish frontier.

As a result of one of those incursions, Turkish-backed forces have held an area bordering Manbij since 2016, and Ankara has repeatedly demanded that the YPG leave the area and cross to the east bank of the Euphrates.

The YPG previously announced it had pulled its forces out of Manbij and has said fighters still in the area belonged to a local militia allied to the SDF, the Reuters news agency reported.

US forces have underpinned stability in Manbij since IS's defeat there in 2016, and have conducted joint patrols with Turkish forces since November in an effort to allay Ankara's security concerns.