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Syrian Kurdish fighters withdraw from Syria border town of Ras al-Ain

Turkish defence ministry says a convoy of 86 vehicles departed in the direction of Tal Tamer to the southeast
President Erdogan has said that Turkey will set up a dozen observation posts across northeast Syria (Reuters)

Kurdish fighters have withdrawn from the besieged Syrian border town of Ras al-Ain under an agreement brokered with the United States.

"A convoy of approximately 55 vehicles entered Ras al-Ain and a convoy of 86 vehicles departed in the direction of Tal Tamer," the Turkish defence ministry said in a statement on Sunday.

The ministry simultaneously distributed pictures of the evacuation.

The ministry said: "There are absolutely no impediments to the withdrawal" of Kurdish forces and "the activities of exiting and evacuation from the region are firmly coordinated with the US counterparts".

Kino Gabriel, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), also confirmed its fighters had left the town.

Turkey had agreed, after talks with US Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday, to suspend its Syria offensive for five days to allow Kurdish forces to withdraw from a "safe zone" along the border and end its assault. 

In Ras al-Ain, an AFP reporter saw at least 50 vehicles, including ambulances, leaving the town hospital, from which flames erupted shortly after their departure.

Dozens of fighters in military attire left on pickups, passing by checkpoints manned by Ankara-allied Syrian fighters, he said.

In the town of Tal Tamer, a woman ululated as a crowd gathered to receive the convoy from Ras al-Ain, another correspondent said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist group, also said the Kurdish fighters had withdrawn from Ras al-Ain.

However Major Youssef Hamoud, a spokesman for the Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, told the Reuters news agency that the SDF had "not yet completely" pulled out of Ras al-Ain.

'The great powers betrayed our people'

In Tal Tamr, Samira, 45, was among women and men carrying SDF flags awaiting the convoy from Ras al-Ain.

"I can't believe Sari Kani has fallen," she said, using the Kurdish name for Ras al-Ain.

"We're saluting our fighters who defended us, though the great powers betrayed our people," she told AFP.

On Saturday, a SDF official had said Kurdish forces would withdraw from a 120km-long strip of Syrian territory along the Turkish border under the US-brokered ceasefire as soon as they were allowed out of Ras al-Ain.

Earlier on Sunday, one Turkish soldier was killed and another was wounded after an attack by the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in northeast Syria's Tal Abyad, the defence ministry said, despite a deal to pause military operations as fighters withdraw from the area.

On Saturday, the truce was holding along the border, with just a few Turkish military vehicles crossing, a Reuters reporter at the scene said, but Sunday's attack has underlined how fragile the agreement is.

US withdrawal

US forces also withdrew from a key base in northern Syria on Sunday, two days before the end of the truce, according to the Observatory.

An AFP correspondent saw more than 70 US armoured vehicles escorted by helicopters drive past Tal Tamer carrying military equipment.

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Some flew the American stars-and-stripes flag as they made their way eastwards along a highway crossing the town, he said.

The Observatory  said the convoy was evacuating the military base of Sarrin.

Ankara regards the YPG, the main component of the SDF, as a terrorist group because of its links to Kurdish rebels in southeast Turkey. 

The YPG has been a close US ally in the fight against Islamic State, with thousands of its fighters dying in the fight against the militant group.

In a statement, the Turkish defence ministry said an attack by the YPG with anti-tank and light weapons had struck Turkish soldiers carrying out a reconnaissance and surveillance mission in Tal Abyad on Sunday.

"The immediate response based on self-defence was given," the ministry said. "Despite the Safe Zone Agreement with the United States... 20 harassments/violations were committed by PKK/YPG terrorists," it said.

The largely Turkey-based PKK, or Kurdistan Workers' Party, has been involved in armed conflict with the Turkish government since the mid-1980s.

'Safe zone'

Turkey aims to establish a "safe zone" some 32km into Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday it would run for some 440km along the border, though the US special envoy for Syria said the accord covered a smaller area where Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies were fighting

On Saturday, Redur Khalil, a senior SDF official, said his forces would pull back from part of the border area in accordance with the deal if Turkey allowed the evacuation of its remaining fighters and civilians from Ras al-Ain, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

Khalil had said the plan for the evacuation from the town would go ahead on Sunday if there were no delays.

He said only after that would the SDF pull back from a 120km-long area between the towns of Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad. It will withdraw and move back from the border 30km.

It was the first time the Kurdish force has publicly acknowledged it would withdraw from the border, saying it has coordinated it with the US.

Previous agreements between the US and Turkey over the "safe zone" floundered over the diverging definitions of the area, AP said.

'Crush the heads'

Erdogan warned on Saturday that the offensive would continue and Turkey would "crush the heads of terrorists" if the deal was not fully implemented, while Turkey has insisted that it is the duty of Washington to ensure the withdrawal of the YPG.

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Erdogan said on Saturday he would discuss the deployment of Syrian government forces in the planned safe zone during talks with Russia's President Vladimir Putin next week, but warned that Ankara would "implement its own plans" if a solution was not reached.

The Turkish president will visit Sochi for emergency talks with Putin on what steps to take next.

Turkey and Russia will discuss the removal of the YPG from the northern Syrian towns of Manbij and Kobane during the talks in Sochi, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Sunday.

In an interview with broadcaster Kanal 7, Cavusoglu said Turkey expected the YPG to be removed from areas where the Syrian government, backed by Moscow, has deployed in northern Syria.

He said Turkey did not want to see a single YPG fighter left in the safe zone at the end of the truce period.

Putin and Erdogan have forged close ties over defence and energy cooperation, as well as efforts to find a political solution in Syria, but Moscow has said the Turkish offensive was "unacceptable" and should be limited.

Erdogan said on Friday that Turkey would set up a dozen observation posts across northeast Syria.