Kurdish officials have announced their fighters have withdrawn from the border town of Ras al-Ayn a day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to continue attacks in northeastern Syria as soon as the agreed 120-hour period expires, the Guardian reported on Sunday.
During talks in Ankara with a delegation of senior US officials, including US Vice President Mike Pence, Erdogan on Thursday agreed to a five-day-long pause in the offensive that was launched by the Turkish military on October 9.
The deal requires the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to withdraw from a planned safe zone by Turkey along its border.
The safe zone is expected to extend for 32 km (20 miles) into Syria to allow for the resettlement of up to 2million Syrian refugees.
“We don’t have any more fighters in the city,” said Kino Gabriel, an SDF spokesman, confirming that they evacuated Ras al-Ayn as part of the agreement.
Deutsche Welle (DW) said in a report on Sunday that many civilians also fled the region because they feared further atrocities committed by Turkey-backed rebel groups.
According to a statement by Turkey’s Defense Ministry, a convoy of 86 vehicles carrying fighters from SDF and wounded civilians left the city on Sunday afternoon and moved south to areas beyond the 20-mile buffer zone that Ankara aims to clear along its border with Syria.
Meanwhile, US troops were also reportedly seen leaving a key base in northern Syria en route east to the border with Iraq on Sunday.
The largest ground move the US has made in Syria, which marks the symbolic end of Washington’s presence in the region, was confirmed by a US official, CNN said in a report.
The move by Kurdish forces and civilians came a day after Erdogan said his country would keep “crushing the heads of the terrorists” provided that the deal on withdrawal of Kurdish fighters from the area breaks down or the five-day deadline passes.
“If it works, it works. If not, we will continue to crush the heads of the terrorists the minute the 120 hours [of the ceasefire] are over,” the president told supporters in the central Turkish province of Kayseri on Saturday.
“If the promises that were made to us are not kept, … we will continue the operation where it left off once the time we set has run out,” Erdogan continued.
The Turkish president also announced that he will talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a visit to Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi on Tuesday about the Assad regime forces deployed in northern Syria under Russia’s protection and find a solution together.
“But the same is valid there too. If it works, it works. If not, then we will continue to implement our own plans,” he warned.
The Turkish government and Kurdish forces have both blamed one another for violating the five-day ceasefire agreement on Sunday.
According to an official statement released by the SDF press office, a total of 16 fighters were killed and three more were wounded as a result of attacks from the Turkish military and Ankara-backed militants in the last 24 hours.
Turkey’s Defense Ministry also said in a statement that a Turkish soldier was killed and another injured in a Kurdish attack near the Syrian town of Tal Abyad.
The ministry added that there have been 22 “harassment/violations” from Syria since the ceasefire began on Thursday.
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, also said on Sunday that he was optimistic about the ceasefire between the two sides.
“There’s relatively little fighting, a little sporadic small-arms fire, a mortar or two,” he told ABC.
The interests of the United States, including preventing the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds in the region and a resurgence of the Islamic State (ISIS), are being served, Pompeo insisted.
The Turkish government has been planning to carry out a military operation in northeast Syria for a long time in order to clear the region off the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia which it sees as a threat on its border.
Ankara argues that YPG, the main component of the SDF, is an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed insurgent group fighting against the Turkish state for Kurdish self-rule since 1984.