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Turkey wants Syrian forces to leave border areas, aide says

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants Syrian government forces to move out of areas near the Turkish border so it can resettle up to two million refugees there, his spokesperson told The Associated Press on Saturday, adding that Erdogan will raise the issue in talks next week with Syria's ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Government troops have moved in to several locations in Syria this week, invited by Kurdish-led fighters

A woman reacts as the body of a man killed during Turkish shelling in the area surrounding the Syrian Kurdish town of Ras al-Ayn arrives at a nearby hospital on Saturday. (Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants Syrian government forces to move out of areas near the Turkish border so it can resettle up to two million refugees there, his spokesperson told The Associated Press on Saturday, adding that Erdogan will raise the issue in talks next week with Syria's ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Arrangements along the Syrian-Turkish border were thrown into disarray after the U.S. pulled its troops out of the area, opening the door to Turkey's invasion aiming to drive out Kurdish-led fighters it considers terrorists.

Abandoned by their American allies, the Kurds — with Russia's mediation — invited Damascus to send troops into northeastern Syria as protection from Turkish forces. That has complicated Turkey's plan to create a "safe zone" along the border, where it can resettle Syrian refugees now in Turkey. Most of those refugees fled Syria's government.

Erdogan's spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalin said Ankara does not want either Syrian forces nor Kurdish fighters in the border area because refugees would not go back to areas under their control.

Turkey has said it wants to oversee that area.

This photo taken Saturday from the Turkish side of the border in Sanliurfa, Ceylanpinar district, shows people waving a Turkish national flag in front of the Syrian town of Ras al-Ayn. (Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)

"This is one of the topics that we will discuss with the Russians, because, again, we are not going to force any refugees to go to anywhere they don't want to go," he said. "We want to create conditions that will be suitable for them to return where they will feel safe."

Turkey has taken in about 3.6 million Syrians fleeing the conflict in their homeland but wants most of them to return. So far, very few have returned to an enclave Turkey already took over and has controlled since 2017.

Kurds say they will pull back

Under an agreement made by the U.S. and Turkey Thursday, a five-day ceasefire has been in place. Turkey expects the Kurdish fighters to pull back from a border area.

A senior Syrian Kurdish official acknowledged for the first time that the Kurdish-led forces agreed to the pullback, stating that his forces will move 30 kilometres south of the border.

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.

Redur Khalil, a senior Syrian Democratic Forces official, told the AP that the withdrawal will take place once Turkey allows the Kurdish-led force to evacuate its fighters and civilians from Ras al-Ayn, a border town under siege by Turkish-backed forces. He said that Kurdish-led force was preparing plans to conduct that evacuation on Sunday, if there are no further delays.

Khalil said Kurdish-led fighters would pull back from a 120-kilometre stretch along the border from Ras al-Ayn to Tal Abyad, moving past the international highway.

"We are only committed to the U.S. version not the Turkish one," Khalil said.

Turkey threatens to relaunch offensive on Tuesday

A previous agreement between the U.S. and Turkey over a "safe zone" along the Syria-Turkish border floundered over the diverging definitions of the area.

Erdogan has said the Kurdish fighters must withdraw from a far larger length of the border from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border — more than 440 kilometres — or else the Turkish offensive will resume on Tuesday.

But U.S. officials say the agreement pertains to the smaller section between the two towns. Kalin confirmed that is the area affected by the pause in fighting, but said Turkey still wants the larger zone.

Two days into the ceasefire, the border town of Ras al-Ayn has been the sticking point in moving forward.

"We hope that as of tonight or tomorrow, they will stick to this agreement and leave the area," Kalin said.

Turkey denies violating ceasefire

The Kurdish official meanwhile said his force had negotiated with the Americans the details of its pullback from the border, starting with the Ras al-Ayn evacuation. But he said the evacuation stalled for 48 hours because Turkish-backed forces continued their siege of the town.

A partial evacuation took place Saturday. Medical convoys were let into part of the town still in Kurdish hands, evacuating 30 wounded and four bodies from a hospital. Khalil said the plan to complete the evacuation from Ras al-Ayn is now set for Sunday.

Turkish officials denied violating the ceasefire or impeding the fighters' withdrawal, blaming the continued violence on the Kurds.

If Kurdish fighters then pull back from the 120-kilometres border area, it is uncertain what the arrangement would be along the rest of the northeastern border, most of which remains solely in the hands of Kurdish-led fighters.

'We have nothing to win'

Last week, Syrian forces began deploying into Kurdish areas, moving only into one location directly on the border, the town of Kobani, and a few positions farther south.

Khalil said the Syrian government and its ally Russia did not want to deploy more extensively in the area, apparently to avoid frictions with Turkey.

"We noticed there was no desire [from the Russians and Syria] to have the Syrian military on the dividing line between us and the Turks except in Kobani," he said.

The border town of Kobani also stands between Turkish-controlled Syrian territories to the west and Kurdish-held eastern Syria.

Khalil said it was not clear what would happen after his forces' withdrawal and five-day ceasefire ends.

"The deal essentially is handing Syrian land to a foreign country. This is not good. It is bad for us," he said. "We have nothing to win. The only win is the international sympathy."

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