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The Latest: Turkey-backed Syrians brace for key town clash

This photo released on the Facebook page of the Military Council of Manbij City, shows U.S. troops based around the Syrian town of Manbij speaking with residents, in northern Syria, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018. (The Military Council of Manbij City via AP)

BEIRUT (AP) — BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on developments related to Syria (all times local):

7:05 p.m.

Turkey-backed Syrian fighters say their forces are on alert and ready for an offensive in a flashpoint Kurdish-held town after Syrian troops announced that they have entered it and raised the government’s flag there.

Spokesman Youssef Hammoud says Turkey-backed fighters have reinforced their positions on the front lines with Manbij, including in areas where Syrian troops have taken up positions alongside the Kurdish-led forces. Turkey and its Syrian allied fighters have threatened an offensive against Manbij, to dislodge the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia. Turkey considers the U.S.-backed militia a terrorist organization.

The escalation in Manbij reached new heights in the wake of the U.S.’s Dec. 14 decision to withdraw its troops from Syria. Although a timetable has not yet been made public, rival forces in the area are readying to grab territory vacated by U.S. troops.

Hammoud said Syrian government troops have reinforced their existing positions south and west of Manbij, but have not entered the town.

“We are in forward positions all along the front line with Manbij and rural areas. We have reinforced our positions and are on alert, awaiting the signal for the start of the battle,” he said.

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6:50 p.m.

Iran’s official IRNA news agency is reporting that the country’s foreign ministry has welcomed the Syrian army’s announcement that its troops had entered the northern town of Manbij.

The Friday report quotes Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi as saying, “Hoisting the Syrian flag in Manbij, located in the northeast of Aleppo governorate in northern Syria, is a major step toward the establishment of the country’s legal government’s authority in the entire Syrian territory.”

“It is a new step towards resolution of crisis in Syria,” Ghasemi also said, according to the report.

The Syrian army entered the town of Manbij on Friday after the main Syrian Kurdish militia invited the Syrian government to seize control of it to prevent an attack from Turkey. The Syrian military said it was responding to calls from the town’s residents and promised safety for everyone living there.

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5:20 p.m.

The U.S.-led coalition has denied that there were changes to the military deployment in Syria’s Kurdish-held Manbij, refuting the Syrian government’s account that its troops have entered the town.

The coalition said Friday that the announcement that government troops had entered the town was “incorrect.” Kurdish officials said the government troops have deployed at the front lines with Turkey-backed fighters to avert a Turkish offensive.

U.S. troops have been patrolling the town and have bases on its edge to prevent friction with Turkey-backed fighters. The town is held by the U.S-backed Kurdish-led forces.

Turkey has threatened a military campaign to drive the Kurdish militia out of the town. The threats, in part, triggered the surprise announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump that he will withdraw American troops from Syria.

The Syrian government announced earlier Friday that it has entered the town of Manbij and raised the national flag there.

“We call on everyone to respect the integrity of Manbij and the safety of its citizens,” the U.S.-led coalition said.

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2:35 p.m.

Turkey’s Defense Ministry says the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, has no authority to make statements on behalf of the region’s people or “invite other elements” into the region.

The statement Friday apparently was referring to the YPG’s appeal to the Syrian government to seize control of the northern town of Manbij to avert an attack by Turkey.

In an official statement Friday, Turkey’s Ministry of Defense said it was closely monitoring the situation in Manbij.

Turkey considers the YPG a terror organization and has been threatening an offensive to oust them from northeastern Syria. The ministry also “warned” all parties to refrain from “provocative acts and discourses” that could create more instability.

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2:35 p.m.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says that Moscow hopes to receive clarifications from the United States regarding its upcoming withdrawal from Syria.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement last week that American troops will pull out of Syria has caught U.S. allies Kurds by surprise.

The Syrian military announced Friday that they have entered the key Kurdish-held town in the country after the main Syrian Kurdish militia invited the government to take control to prevent a Turkish attack.

Lavrov, who was hosting the Jordanian foreign minister on Friday, told reporters that Moscow hopes to receive “concrete explanations” from U.S. officials of the reason behind the decision to pull out.

Lavrov also said that “it appears that Washington wants to shift the responsibility” on other partners in the anti-Islamic State group coalition who will remain on the ground.

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2:25 p.m.

Turkey’s president says the facts on the ground in a key northern Syrian town remain uncertain but he emphasized Turkey’s goal of ousting a Kurdish militant group.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the Syrian military’s entry into Manbij a “psychological act.” He told reporters: “I spoke with my friends, with intelligence, etc., about an hour ago and there is nothing certain at this moment.”

Erdogan also argued that Turkey has been working for Syria’s territorial integrity and said Turkey’s goal remains the defeat of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or the YPG. Turkey considers it a terrorist group linked to an insurgency within its own borders.

“If terror organizations leave, then there is no work left for us anyway,” Erdogan told reporters. He said Turkey’s military was continuing its preparations.

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1:10 p.m.

A senior Syrian Kurdish official says Syrian government troops have arrived at the front lines of the flash-point town of Manbij but have not taken over the city, and U.S. troops based outside it have not withdrawn.

Ilham Ahmed said an agreement was being worked out with the Russians and the Syrian government that in case of a full U.S. withdrawal, government troops would take over.

The Syrian government has announced it has seized control of the town.

“The aim is to ward off a Turkish offensive,” Ahmed said. “If the Turks’ excuse is the (Kurdish militia), so they leave their posts to the government.”

Ahmed said the Kurdish militiaremain inside the city.

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11:55 a.m.

The Kremlin has welcomed the Syrian military’s entry into the flash-point Kurdish-held town where Turkey has threatened an offensive.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday described the development as a “positive step” that could help “stabilize the situation.”

The Syrian army entered the town of Manbij on Friday after the main Syrian Kurdish militia invited the government to seize control of it to prevent an attack from Turkey. The Syrian military said it was responding to calls from the town’s residents and promised safety for all living there.

The Syrian entry into Manbij comes a day before Moscow is to host top Turkish officials to discuss the crisis in Syria after the United States announced it will withdraw its troops from the country.

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11:15 a.m.

The main Syrian Kurdish militia has invited government troops to take control of the flashpoint northern town of Manbij to prevent a Turkish attack.

The People’s Protection Units, or YPG, made the appeal Friday in a tweet. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting that Syrian government forces have been massing on the edges of Manbij, a front line between Kurdish-led forces and Turkey-backed fighters to the west.

It is not yet clear whether U.S. troops, which had patrolled the area, remain in place or have withdrawn. There was no immediate response from the U.S-led coalition.

Turkey had threatened a military operation against Manbij to remove the Kurdish-led forces there. Turkey views the YPG as a terrorist group.

The threats triggered the U.S. announcement of withdrawing troops from Syria.

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