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War monitors report fighting in Syria after Turkish-U.S. ceasefire deal

Two war monitor groups reported fighting in Syrian villages Friday, a day after Turkey agreed with the United States to pause its offensive for five days to let Kurdish forces withdraw. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denied any ongoing clashes in northeastern Syria.

Turkish President Erdogan denies ongoing clashes in northeastern Syria

This picture taken Friday from the Turkish side of the border in Ceylanpinar shows smoke rising from the Syrian town of Ras al-Ayn. Sporadic clashes between Turkish forces and Kurdish groups were ongoing Friday, two war-monitor groups said, despite Ankara's announcement of a five-day truce. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

Two war monitor groups reported fighting in Syrian villages Friday including in the northeast Syrian town of Ras al-Ayn, near the border, a day after Turkey agreed with the United States to pause its offensive for five days to let Kurdish forces withdraw.

Despite the reports from the Rojava Information Centre, based in Syria, and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denied any ongoing clashes in northeastern Syria. 

Erdogan said fighters were withdrawing from parts of northeast Syria following the ceasefire agreement, and told reporters in Istanbul that Turkey's defence minister had confirmed the Kurdish fighters had started to pull out, but Turkish soldiers would remain in northeast Syria to ensure the pullout is occurring.

Asked about clashes reported Friday, he said: "I don't know where you're getting your news from. According to the news I received from my defence minister, there is no question of clashes. These are all speculation, disinformation."  

U.S. President Donald Trump said Erdogan offered assurances that the ceasefire he agreed to had not already broken down.

Reuters journalists at the border said the bombardment subsided around mid-morning, and a U.S. official said most of the fighting had stopped, although it would "take time for things to completely quiet down."

Trump also said he was just notified that some EU nations are now willing to take back fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) who came from their nations, as he has previously demanded.

The White House did not immediately respond to questions about which countries he had heard from and exactly what they had agreed to.

One important unknown in the wake of Turkey's military incursion, which began Oct. 9, is whether ISIS fighters who have been held by U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) will escape in large numbers. Even before the Turkish offensive, some U.S. officials had noted signs that the militants were seeking to regroup.

At the Pentagon, Defence Secretary Mark Esper said U.S. troops are continuing their withdrawal from northern Syria. He also said no U.S. ground troops will participate in enforcing or monitoring the ceasefire that Vice-President Mike Pence announced Thursday in Ankara.

"The force protection of our service members remains our top priority and, as always, U.S. forces will defend themselves from any threat as we complete our withdrawal from the area," Esper told reporters.

Early Friday, machine-gun fire and shelling could be heard from the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar across the border from Ras al-Ayn, and smoke rose from one part of the Syrian town.

A spokesperson for the Kurdish-led SDF said the town remained besieged and is being shelled by Turkey and its allied forces.

The Kurdish-held towns of Manbij and Ras al-Ayn are at the centre of military action by Turkey forces. Syrian government forces are aiming to re-establish their hold over the Kurdish-controlled section of Syria (shown in orange), while Turkey is attempting to create a 30-kilometre 'refugee safe-zone' to settle 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey.

Mervan Qamishlo said Friday his group's militia members would not withdraw in accordance with the ceasefire deal reached overnight because Ras al-Ayn remains besieged. He said Turkey and allied fighters continue to target the town.

When asked about plans to pull fighters back to vacate border areas, Qamishlo ​​​​​​said: "So far there is nothing." He added that "it seems under this deal [Turkey] want to commit more massacres."

Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF press office, tweeted Friday that Turkey is violating the ceasefire agreement by continuing to attack the town since last night.

The two war-monitor groups confirmed the fighting between Kurdish and Turkey forces. 

The Rojava Information Centre and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported fighting in villages on the western and eastern flanks of Ras al-Ayn. The observatory says at least five people were killed and 14 injured. The Rojava centre said its volunteers on the ground reported advances by Turkey-backed forces on two villages.

The Kurdish Red Crescent, a humanitarian aid organization associated with the International Red Cross, said its vehicles can't reach Ras al-Ayn to evacuate the wounded.

'Not a serious initiative'

The truce was announced Thursday by the U.S. vice-president after talks in Ankara, the Turkish capital, with Erdogan. Turkey agreed to the five-day pause to let the Kurdish-led SDF militia withdraw from a "safe zone" Ankara had sought to capture.

The deal was praised by Trump, who said it would save "millions of lives," while Turkey cast it as a complete victory.

EU Council President Donald Tusk said the apparent Syria ceasefire was "a demand of capitulation of the Kurds," and called on Turkey to immediately halt its operation in northern Syria.

U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan before their meeting in Ankara on Thursday. The two leaders brokered a ceasefire deal to allow Syrian-Kurdish forces to withdrawal from a proposed 30-kilometre 'safe zone' near the Turkish border. (Turkish Presidential Press Office/EFE/EPA)

EU nations condemned Turkey's offensive in Syria at a leaders summit in Brussels on Friday. Tusk said the U.S.-Turkey agreement to lay down arms for five days was not a serious initiative.

"We have to reiterate our call for Turkey to put a permanent end to its military action immediately, and to withdraw its forces and respect international humanitarian law," he added.

French President Emmanuel Macron said Turkey's military operation in Syria is "madness."

The deal is meant to achieve all the main objectives Turkey announced when it launched its assault on Oct. 9: control of a strip of Syria more than 30 kilometres deep, with the SDF — once U.S. allies in the yearslong fight against ISIS — obliged to pull out.

Erdogan told reporters after Friday prayers in Istanbul that U.S. and Turkish officials would be in constant contact to implement the agreement together.

Republican and Democratic senators accused Trump of having betrayed the Kurdish allies who were vital in fighting ISIS, of brushing aside the humanitarian costs of Turkey's invasion and of being outwitted by Ankara.

It was unclear what if any damage came from the shelling heard on Friday.

It was also unclear whether the SDF would fully comply with the agreement, which would leave Turkish forces in charge of a swath of territory that the Kurds once held with U.S. military support.

Residents of a town in Syria are feeling the personal toll from what they say are broken promises that led to the recent violence in the country. CBC’s Margaret Evans spent the day in northern Syria. 2:01

With files from The Associated Press

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