Akcakale, Turkey: Kurdish-led fighters and Turkish-backed forces clashed sporadically Sunday in northeastern Syria amid efforts to work out a Kurdish evacuation from a besieged border town, the first pull-back under the terms of a US-brokered cease-fire. Turkey said one of its soldiers was killed in the day’s violence.
A convoy carrying wounded and fighters from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces left Ras Al Ain on Sunday, an AFP reporter said. The reporter saw at least 50 vehicles including ambulances leaving the town hospital and flames erupt from the medical facility shortly after their departure.
The evacuation of Kurdish fighters and civilians from the town of Ras Al Ain would open the way to a pullout of the fighters from a broader swathe of territory along the border, a senior official in the Kurdish-led forces told the Associated Press.
The official, Redur Khalil, said Saturday evening that the evacuation could take place Sunday if there were no new problems.
Both sides accuse each other of repeatedly violating the three-day old cease-fire. Turkey’s Defence Ministry said the soldier was killed in a Kurdish attack with anti-tank weapons and small arms fire near the border town of Tal Abyad.
That brought the Turkish military’s death toll to seven soldiers since it launched its offensive against Kurdish-led fighters in northeast Syria on October 9.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said Turkish troops and their allied Syrian fighters have continued their offensives the past 24 hours, forcing its fighters to retaliate. It said 16 SDF fighters had been killed and three wounded in Turkish attacks around the border town of Ras Al Ain and nearby villages.
Ras Al Ain, under siege by Turkish-backed fighters, has been the scene of continual fighting since the cease-fire came into place on Thursday night.
Khalil told the AP that the force had reached understandings with the Americans to evacuate its fighters from the town from the start of the cease-fire but the siege had delayed the plans. Turkish officials have denied they were preventing the withdrawal of any fighters.
On Saturday, medical convoys were able to enter for the first time into neighbourhoods still in the hands of the Kurdish fighters, delivering medical supplies and bringing out 30 wounded and four dead.
Khalil said the full evacuation could follow the next day unless there were new delays. A spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ebrahim Kalin, also told the AP he hoped to see a pullout from the town on Sunday.
Khalil said that once the Ras Al Ain evacuation was carried out, Kurdish-led forces will withdraw from a swath of border territory in accordance with the US-brokered deal. He said their fighters would re-deploy from a zone 120km wide and 30km deep between Ras Al Ain and Tal Abyad.
Under the ceasefire deal, Kurdish-led forces are supposed to carry out the pullback by the time the pause in fighting runs out Tuesday evening.
A pullback would be a major boost to the deal. But significant issues remain.
A previous agreement between the US and Turkey over a “safe zone” along the Syria-Turkish border floundered over the diverging definitions of the area.
Erdogan has said the Kurdish fighters must withdraw from a far larger length of the border from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border - more than 440km - or else the Turkish offensive will resume on Tuesday.
US officials say the agreement pertains to the 120km section. Erdogan’s spokesman, Kalin, confirmed that is the area affected by the pause in fighting, but said Turkey still wants the larger zone.