ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish and U.S. troops on Thursday began jointly patrolling areas around the northern Syrian town of Manbij, part of a roadmap for easing tensions between the two NATO allies, Turkey’s defense minister announced.
Responding to questions by legislators in Parliament, Hulusi Akar said the patrols began at 3:53 p.m. (1253 GMT) but did not provide further details.
Sharfan Darwish, spokesman of the Manbij Military Council, told The Associated Press earlier that the patrols had started and were taking place on the front lines between his group and those of Turkey-backed rebels in the operation called Euphrates Shield.
Ankara and Washington agreed on a roadmap in June amid Turkish demands for the withdrawal of the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia that freed Manbij from the Islamic State group in 2016.
The U.S. and the Turks have been conducting independent patrols along the front line and joint patrols are considered a way to tamp down potential violence between the various groups in the region. The sides have conducted 68 independent patrols before the combined patrols started.
U.S. Central Command said in a news release that a ground force commander agreed on by both countries will lead the joint patrols.
Maj. Gen. Christopher Ghika, deputy commander of operation Inherent Resolve, said recent training by Turkish and coalition forces will help them to protect Manbij civilians.
“We’re fully supportive of the road map and the combined joint patrols, and I am confident they will be very effective,” he said.
The Manbij Military Council that administers the town says the Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which Turkey views as a terrorist group, left Manbij in July.
“The aim of these patrols is to reduce tension and guarantee stability so that there will be no tension along the front line,” Darwish said by telephone from northern Syria.
Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group because of its links to the Kurdish insurgency in southeastern Turkey. It had threatened to storm Manbij to oust the group from the region.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, also said the patrols would follow days of Turkish shelling of positions of the main Kurdish militia.
The Observatory and Kurdish spokesman Mustafa Bali said Turkish troops opened fire on the border village of Tal Fandar killing an 11-year-old girl.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency quoted Akar as saying that despite promises that the YPG and other Kurdish militias “will be removed from Manbij, the terror organizations are digging trenches there like they did in Afrin.” He was referring to a Kurdish enclave taken earlier this year by Turkish troops and Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters.
“The terror organization should know that they will be buried in the trenches when the time and place comes,” Akar said.
Last week, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters traveling with him in the Middle East that the soldiers’ training is expected to last “several more days,” and then will transition to combined patrols.
Mroue reported from Beirut.
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