Kurdish fighters withdraw from besieged Syria town

A convoy of ambulances and other vehicles evacuating fighters and injured members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as a well as wounded civilians, leaves the northeastern Syrian border town of Ras Al-Ain on Oct. 20, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 21 October 2019

Kurdish fighters withdraw from besieged Syria town

  • The evacuation opens the way for Turkish-backed forces to take over in first pullback under US-brokered cease-fire
  • The Trump administration negotiated the accord after heavy criticism at home and abroad

RAS AL-AIN, Syria: The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces fully withdrew from a Turkish-encircled town in northern Syria on Sunday, in what appeared to be the start of a wider pullout under a cease-fire deal.
Ankara launched a cross-border attack against Syria’s Kurds on October 9 after the United States announced a military pullout from the war-torn country’s north.
A US-brokered cease-fire was announced late Thursday, giving Kurdish forces until Tuesday evening to withdraw from a buffer area Ankara wants to create on Syrian territory along its southern frontier.
The deal requires the SDF — the de facto army of Kurdish authorities in northeastern Syria — to pull out of the border zone extending 32 kilometers (20 miles) deep into Syrian territory, the length of which is not clear.
The Kurds have agreed to withdraw from an Arab-majority stretch of border from Tal Abyad to Ras Al-Ain, around 120 kilometers (70 miles).
But Turkey ultimately wants a much longer “safe zone” to stretch 440 kilometers along the frontier.
On Saturday, SDF commander Mazloum Abdi said Kurdish forces would withdraw from the 120-kilometer zone as soon as they were allowed out of Ras Al-Ain, which was besieged by Turkey’s troops and Syrian proxies.
The SDF later said its fighters had completely evacuated the border town as part of the truce agreement, after Turkey’s defense ministry confirmed they were departing.
An AFP reporter on the ground saw at least 50 vehicles, including ambulances, leaving the town hospital, from which flames erupted shortly after their departure.
Dozens of fighters in military attire left on pickups, passing by checkpoints manned by Ankara-allied Syrian fighters, he said.
In the town of Tal Tamr, Samira, 45, was among women and men carrying SDF flags awaiting the convoy from Ras Al-Ain.
“I can’t believe Sari Kani has fallen,” she said, using the Kurdish name for Ras Al-Ain.
“We’re saluting our fighters who defended us, though the great powers betrayed our people,” she told AFP.
Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of US special forces from northern Syria in what was widely seen as betrayal of the Kurds and a green light for a Turkish attack.
The Kurds have been a key ally to Washington in the US-backed fight against Daesh in Syria, but Turkey views them as “terrorists” linked to Kurdish militants on its own soil.
A week ago, the Pentagon said Trump had ordered up to 1,000 troops out of northern Syria.
Earlier Sunday, US forces withdrew from their largest base in northern Syria, the Observatory said.
The correspondent in Tal Tamr saw more than 70 US armored vehicles escorted by helicopters drive eastwards on the highway, some flying the American flag.
The Observatory said the convoy was evacuating the Sarrin military base on the edge of the planned buffer zone.
Sunday’s pullout, the fourth such withdrawal of American forces in a week, left Syria’s northern provinces of Aleppo and Raqqa empty of US troops, Abdel Rahman said.
Since October 9, Turkish-led bombardment and fire has killed 114 civilians and displaced at least 300,000 people from their homes, the Observatory says, in the latest humanitarian crisis in Syria’s eight-year civil war.
More than 250 SDF fighters and 190 pro-Ankara combatants have lost their lives, it says.
Ankara says it has lost five soldiers.
On Sunday, the Observatory said pro-Ankara fighters executed three civilians who were hiding in an industrial part of Ras Al-Ain.
On Twitter, Trump cited Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Sunday as saying the cease-fire was “holding up very nicely.”
“There are some minor skirmishes that have ended quickly. New areas being resettled with the Kurds,” he said.
The Kurdish authorities in northeastern Syrian said they were “perplexed” by Trump’s statement on a successful truce.
“Turkey and its mercenaries have absolutely not abided by it and repeatedly violated it,” they said in a statement.
“Trump saying the Kurds have been resettled in new areas opened the way to ethnic cleansing,” it warned, calling for international protection for the displaced.
International observers have warned that Turkey’s incursion could force Kurdish fighters to redeploy from prisons and camps where they are guarding thousands of suspected Daesh fighters and family members, making way for jailbreaks.
That has raised fears of a resurgence by the extremists, whom the SDF expelled from their last scrap of territory in March but who continue to claim deadly attacks in Kurdish-held areas.


Turkish police arrest journalist Altan a week after his release

Updated 33 min 36 sec ago

Turkish police arrest journalist Altan a week after his release

  • Altan and the others deny the charges against them
  • On Tuesday a higher court overruled the decision to release Altan, ordering his arrest on grounds that there was a risk of him fleeing

ISTANBUL: Turkish police detained prominent journalist and author Ahmet Altan late on Tuesday, a week after he was released from prison in his retrial on coup-related charges, Istanbul police said.

Before his release last Monday, the 69-year-old had been in jail since his arrest in 2016, two months after an attempted coup which Ankara says was orchestrated by the network of US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.

The journalist’s case has drawn criticism from human rights groups and Turkey’s Western allies. They are concerned by the scale of a post-coup crackdown against suspected Gulen supporters under President Tayyip Erdogan.

Altan smiled and waved as he was driven away by counter-terror squad police officers after being taken from his home in Istanbul, video and photos published by Turkish media showed.

He was taken to Istanbul police headquarters after a hospital check-up, state-owned Anadolu news agency reported.

Altan, his brother and other journalists were previously sentenced to life in jail for aiding Gulen’s network. Last week he was convicted again in a retrial, but released from jail given the time served.

Altan and the others deny the charges against them.

On Tuesday a higher court overruled the decision to release Altan, ordering his arrest on grounds that there was a risk of him fleeing, Anadolu reported.

Under last week’s verdict, Altan was sentenced to 10 years and six months in jail. Turkey’s high court had overruled the previous life sentences against him in July, sending the file back for re-trial.

Erdogan’s government has jailed more than 77,000 people pending trial since the failed putsch. Widespread arrests are still routine in a crackdown critics say demonstrates growing autocracy in Turkey.

Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999, and his followers deny any involvement in the coup. Turkey has repeatedly called on the United States to extradite the cleric.