A fragile ceasefire was largely holding along Turkey‘s border with Syria on Saturday, but clashes were reported between Turkish-allied forces and Kurdish fighters in the Syrian border town of Ras al-Ain.
The two sides accused each other of violating the US-brokered truce, two days after Turkey agreed to give Kurdish forces 120 hours to pull back from the Turkish-Syrian border to allow Ankara to form a so-called “safe zone”.
In a press release on Saturday, the Turkish defence ministry said the army was subjected to attacks and had “fully implemented” the ceasefire.
The ministry said there had been 14 “provocative attacks” from Kurdish fighters in the past 36 hours, 12 in the town of Ras al-Ain, which has been besieged by Turkey-allied Syrian fighters for several days.
It said the Kurdish fighters used mortars, rockets, anti-aircraft and anti-tank heavy machine guns in the attacks, adding that Ankara was in “instantaneous coordination” with Washington to ensure the continuity of calm.
In a counter-accusation, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said there were attacks by pro-Turkey Syrian forces in Ras al-Ain and medical personnel could not enter the town.
The SDF commander said the Turkish army and allied fighters were also blocking people from leaving Ras al-Ain.
“The Turks are preventing the withdrawal from the Ras al-Ain area, preventing the exit of our forces, the wounded and civilians,” Mazloum Abdi, the head of the SDF, said in a phone interview with the AFP news agency.
A senior Turkish official denied that Ankara was blocking their pullout and described the claim as “false information”.
Abdi also said the US was not doing enough to force Turkey to abide by the agreement, adding that he would consider the situation “a conspiracy against our forces”.
“If there is no commitment, we shall consider what happened a game between the Americans and Turkey – on one side preventing the troop withdrawal while on the other claiming our forces did not withdraw,” Abdi said.
Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday that Turkey would press on with its offensive and “crush the heads” of Kurdish fighters if the deal on the withdrawal was not fully implemented.
“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,” Erdogan told supporters in the central Turkish province of Kayseri.
“If the promises that were made to us are not kept, we will not wait like we did before and we will continue the operation where it left off once the time we set has run out,” he said.
‘Medics waiting to enter town‘
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Turkey-backed Syrian fighters have prevented a medical convoy from reaching Ras al-Ain. It said the medical convoy has been waiting outside the town since Friday.
Syrian state media said Turkish-backed fighters also made an “infiltration attempt” south of Ras al-Ain, but were repelled in clashes with Syrian government forces which had recently moved into the area. The reports gave no further details.
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Ceylanpinar on the Turkish side of the border, said the situation in Ras al-Ain was worrying, although the ceasefire was largely holding in other areas.
“Pro-Turkish Syrian Arab fighters have surrounded the town. They say they are allowing civilians out,” he said.
“But they also say there are ongoing talks to persuade Kurdish fighters trapped in the city to leave their weapons and withdraw. The SDF says a humanitarian corridor there is vital to save lives,” Stratford added.
He also said that the withdrawal of the SDF forces was ongoing in other areas.
Akar and Esper hold talks
Defence Minister Hulusi Akar had a phone call with the US secretary of defence, Mark Esper, late on Friday, according to the Turkish defence ministry.
It said that Akar urged Esper to ensure that Kurdish forces withdrew from the zone within the 120 hours agreed under the truce, and also make certain that their heavy weapons were collected and fortifications destroyed.
Erdogan agreed to the truce on Thursday during talks in Ankara with US Vice President Mike Pence on stemming the humanitarian crisis which has unfolded since the beginning of Turkey’s operation on October 9.
More than 200,000 civilians have fled their homes in northeast Syria since the offensive began, according to the Red Cross.
Ankara regards the YPG, the SDF’s main Kurdish component, as a “terrorist” group because of its links to outlawed Kurdish fighters operating in southeast Turkey.
Erdogan said on Friday that the planned 32 kilometre (20-mile) safe zone would run for some 440km along the border, but the US special envoy for Syria said the accord covered a smaller area where Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies were fighting.
The Turkish president also said Turkey would set up a dozen observation posts across northeast Syria.