Russian Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu said armed Kurdish forces had withdrawn from a “safe zone” near the northeast Syria-Turkey border faster than scheduled, the TASS news agency reported.
“The withdrawal of armed forces from the territory where a safety corridor is supposed to be created has been completed ahead of schedule,” Shoigu was quoted as saying by the state-run Russian agency, shortly before a deadline for their removal expired on Tuesday.
But the Turkish presidency said on Tuesday that the Turkish-Russian joint patrols will verify whether Syrian Kurdish forces have withdrawn from a proposed 30-kilometre (19-mile) “safe zone” in northern Syria.
“The time is up,” Fahrettin Altun, communications director at the presidency, wrote on Twitter. “We will establish, through joint patrols, whether or not the terrorists have actually withdrawn,” he said, referring to the YPG forces, which Ankara views as a “terrorist” organisation linked to Kurdish armed group, PKK, in Turkey.
Earlier, Turkey’s defence minister told a Turkish newspaper that YPG forces had still not fully withdrawn from the “safe zone”.
Under an accord reached a week ago between the presidents of Turkey and Russia, Syrian border guardsmen and Russian military police are meant to remove all YPG forces and their weapons from the band of territory south of the border by 6pm local time (15:00 GMT) on Tuesday.
After the expiry of the deadline, Russian and Turkish forces are set to jointly start to patrol a narrower, 10km (6.2-mile) strip of land on the Syrian side of the border.
The deal, agreed on in the Russian city of Sochi, reinforced an existing US-brokered ceasefire that halted Turkey’s operation, dubbed “Operation Peace Spring”, in northeast Syria targeting the YPG.
A Russian delegation was in Turkey on Tuesday for talks on the border patrols and wider security situation in northeast Syria.
Akar: Withdrawal not complete
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar told Sabah newspaper that there were still about 1,000 YPG fighters in the border town of Manbij and a further 1,000 in nearby Tal Rifat.
The two towns are located to the west of the strip of territory that Turkey wants to turn into a “safe zone” but Syrian and Russian forces are also meant to clear them of YPG forces.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that Turkey will act alone to clear northeast Syria of YPG forces if Russia fails to fulfil its obligations under the Sochi accord.
Turkey launched its operation in northeast Syria after President Donald Trump said he was pulling 1,000 US military personnel from the area.
The YPG is the main component in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has been a key ally of the US against ISIL.
Russia, a close ally of President Bashar al-Assad, has emerged as the key foreign power in Syria, its influence further bolstered by the withdrawal of US troops from the northeast.