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Syrian government forces reach buffer zone near Turkey border

Troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have returned to the northeast of the country for the first time since 2012
A convoy of the Syrian army on a road between the northeastern cities of Tal Tamer and Ras al-Ain in the Hasakah province (AFP)

Syrian government troops have entered a key area near the Turkish border after Damascus deployed thousands of soldiers to the flashpoint region.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group said on Saturday that around 2,000 Syrian troops, and hundreds of military vehicles, had been deployed to an area next to what Turkey calls its "safe zone".

The UK-based Observatory, which relies on a network of sources on the ground, said it was the Syrian army's "largest deployment" in the region in years, with government forces being accompanied by Russian military police.

Syria’s state news agency SANA said its forces had entered the provincial borders of Ras al-Ain, an area which was taken by Turkish forces following an offensive against the Kurdish People's Protections Units (YPG) militia.

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Troops were also deployed along a road stretching some 30km south of the frontier, SANA added. 

Their arrival marks the start of a mission by both Russia and Syria to push Kurdish fighters 30km from the Turkey border under a deal reached between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this week.

Erdogan has warned that Ankara will "clear terrorists" from Turkey's border if the Kurds do not withdraw by a 29 October deadline.

Ankara says the YPG is linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist group that has waged a deadly, decades-long insurgency in Turkey. 

The PKK is designated as a "terrorist group" by the United States and the European Union.

Despite Saturday's deployment, the Observatory said Kurdish fighters and Turkish-backed Syrian fighters traded artillery fire in the region.

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Turkey and Russia

Turkey launched a cross-border attack against Kurdish-held areas on 9 October, grabbing a 120km-long swathe of Syrian land along the frontier.

The incursion has left hundreds dead and caused 300,000 people to flee their homes, in the latest humanitarian crisis in Syria's brutal eight-year war.

This week, Turkey and Russia struck a deal in Sochi for more Kurdish forces to withdraw from the frontier on both sides of that Turkish-held area under the supervision of Russian and Syrian forces.

Under the Sochi deal, Kurdish forces have until late Tuesday to withdraw from border areas at either end of the Turkish-held area, before joint Turkish-Russian start patrols in a 10km strip there.

Ankara eventually wants to set up a buffer zone on Syrian soil along the entire length of its 440km-long border, including to resettle some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey.

The Syrian Democratic Forces militia, which the YPG is a leading component of, has objected to some provisions of the Sochi agreement and so far has maintained several border posts.