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Syrian Kurds accuse Turkey of not abiding by ceasefire

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) accused Turkey on Thursday of launching a large land offensive targeting three villages in northeast Syria despite a truce, but Russia said a peace plan hammered out this week was going ahead smoothly.

SDF says thousands of civilians have fled as a result of attacks on 3 villages

Syrian civilians ride in the back of a truck as they flee villages where fighting continues in the countryside of Tal Abyad, as Turkey-backed fighters take over the area between the northeastern town and Kobane Thursday, after Kurdish forces left several positions along the long border with Turkey. (Bakr Alkasem/AFP via Getty Images)

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) accused Turkey on Thursday of launching a large land offensive targeting three villages in northeast Syria despite a truce, but Russia said a peace plan hammered out this week was going ahead smoothly.

Under the plan, agreed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syrian Kurdish forces are to withdraw more than 30 kilometres from the Turkish border, a goal Russia's RIA news agency, quoting an SDF official, said was already achieved.

Russia said it was sending more military police officers and heavy equipment to help implement the deal, which has already prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to lift sanctions against Turkey and has drawn lavish praise for Erdogan in the Turkish media.

Ankara views the Kurdish YPG militia, the main component in the SDF, as terrorists linked to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey. It launched a cross-border offensive against them on Oct. 9 after Trump ordered U.S. forces out of northeast Syria.

The deal agreed with Putin, which builds on and widens a previous U.S.-brokered ceasefire, helped end the fighting.

But the SDF said in its statement on Thursday that Turkish forces had attacked three villages "outside the area of the ceasefire process," forcing thousands of civilians to flee.

"Despite our forces' commitment to the ceasefire decision and the withdrawal of our forces from the entire ceasefire area, the Turkish state and the terrorist factions allied to it are still violating the ceasefire process," it said.

"Our forces are still clashing," it said, urging the United States to intervene to halt the renewed fighting.

On Wednesday, Donald Trump announced a permanent ceasefire on the Syrian border with Turkey. But can the peace be stable? The CBC’s Margaret Evans on her experience travelling there last week. 18:10

Turkey's defence ministry did not comment directly on the SDF report but said five of its military personnel had been wounded in an attack by the YPG militia around the border town of Ras al-Ain, near where the three villages are located.

Turkey has previously said it reserves the right to self-defence against any militants who remain in the area despite the truce, a pledge repeated by Erdogan on Thursday.

"If these terrorists don't pull back and continue their provocations, we will implement our plans for a [new] offensive there," he said in a speech to local administrators.

'Everything is being implemented'

Russia, which as a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has emerged as the key geopolitical player in Syria, has begun deploying military police near the Turkish border as part of the deal agreed on Tuesday in the Russian city of Sochi.

"We note with satisfaction that the agreements reached in Sochi are being implemented," Interfax news agency quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin as saying.

"Everything is being implemented," he said.

RIA, citing an SDF official, said the Kurdish fighters had already withdrawn to 32 km away from the border. It also said the Kurds were ready to discuss joining the Syrian army once the crisis in Syria has been settled politically.

Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighters ride in their military tank near the border town of Tal Abyad on Thursday. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

Russia will send a further 276 military police officers and 33 units of military hardware to Syria in a week, RIA news agency cited a defence ministry source as saying.

Next Tuesday, under the terms of the Sochi deal, Russian and Turkish forces will start to patrol a 10-kilometre strip of land in northeast Syria where U.S. troops had for years been deployed with Kurdish forces.

The arrival of the Russian police marks a shift in the regional balance of power just two weeks after Trump pulled out U.S. forces, in a move widely criticized in Washington and elsewhere as a betrayal of the Americans' former Kurdish allies.

The Russian deployments have also further highlighted increasingly close ties between Russia and NATO member Turkey.

U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper, speaking in Brussels on Thursday ahead of a NATO meeting, said Turkey — which irked Washington this year by buying Russian-made S400 missile defence systems — was moving in the wrong direction.

"We see them spinning closer to Russia's orbit than in the Western orbit, and I think that is unfortunate," Esper said.

Despite Trump's lifting of sanctions on Turkey, distrust persists between Ankara and Washington, and a top Erdogan aide on Thursday criticized U.S. politicians for treating SDF commander Mazloum Kobani as a "legitimate political figure."

The aide, Fahrettin Altun, told Reuters that Mazloum was a senior leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency in southeast Turkey and which Ankara's Western allies also deem a terrorist group.

Republican and Democratic U.S. senators urged the State Department on Wednesday to quickly provide a visa to Mazloum so he can visit the United States to discuss the situation in Syria.

The Turkish public has shown strong support for the military operation, encouraged by an overwhelmingly pro-government media.

"The superpower of peace, Turkey," said the main headline in Thursday's edition of the pro-government Sabah newspaper.

However, the incursion has deepened a sense of alienation among Turkey's Kurds, which is also being fuelled by a crackdown on the country's main pro-Kurdish party.

Kurds make up some 18 per cent of Turkey's 82 million people.

Turkey's military operation was widely condemned by its NATO allies, which said it was causing a fresh humanitarian crisis in Syria's eight-year conflict and could let ISIS prisoners held by the YPG escape and regroup.