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Turkish-Backed Syrian Rebels Advance Toward Syrian Kurds At Manbij

  • RFE/RL

Turkish soldiers in the Turkish-Syrian border city of Karkamis on August 27.

Turkish soldiers in the Turkish-Syrian border city of Karkamis on August 27.

Turkey's army and an allied Syrian rebel group called Sultan Murad were advancing toward the Syrian-Kurdish held city of Manbij on August 28 as fighting between the sides escalated in northern Syria.

Manbij, on the west bank of the Euphrates River, was captured from Islamic State (IS) militants earlier in August by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance, including the powerful Kurdish YPG militia, after a 10-week U.S.-backed offensive.

But Ankara said on August 28 that it has begun to launch air strikes at Manbij against Kurdish militia fighters from the so-called People’s Defense Units (YPG) as part of Turkey's cross-border military offensive in northern Syria.

Colonel Ahmed Osman, head of the Sultan Murad rebel group, said on August 28 that his Turkey-backed force was "certainly heading in the direction of Manbij" to confront YPG forces.

Reports said the Sultan Murad group had moved into several villages previously held by Syrian Kurdish fighters as the Turkish-backed force advanced toward Manbij on August 28.

Hours earlier, Ankara announced the first death of a Turkish soldier in the military operation it launched into northern Syria on August 23 -- saying he was killed amid escalating fighting between Turkish ground forces and the YPG.

Meanwhile, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory For Human Rights said on August 28 that overnight Turkish air strikes killed 20 civilians in Manbij and that at least 15 more civilians had been killed in villages across northern Syria on August 28 by Turkish artillery and tank fire.

Turkey's military rejected that report, saying that its air strikes had killed 25 Kurdish militants that Ankara described as "terrorists."

Speaking in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, where a bomb attack killed 54 people at a Kurdish wedding last week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said “operations against terrorist organizations will continue until the end."

Erdogan vowed to devote “the same determination" in the fight against IS militants and YPG fighters.

Warning To YPG

Turkey has fought against both Islamic State (IS) militants and the YPG since launching its cross-border offensive on August 23.

However, until the night of August 27, the targeting of Kurdish fighters in northern Syria had been limited to attacks by Turkish artillery, tanks, and infantry.

Both Turkey and the YPG are fighting against the IS, and the YPG is seen by Washington as critical to the U.S.-led coalition’s strategy against Islamic State.

But Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist group and says it wants to stop YPG fighters from seizing territory along Syria’s border with Turkey and linking up with Kurdish Turkish rebels from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Ankara and the United States have warned the YPG to remain east of the Euphrates River to avoid clashes with Turkish troops.

Some YPG commanders claimed that they had evacuated Manbij and withdrawn to the east.

But other reports said YPG fighters had fortified their defensive positions in Manbij and remained there after their hard-fought victory there against the IS.

In the Turkey’s southeastern city of Diyarbakir late on August 27, PKK fighters launched four rocket attacks on a military air base used by both Turkish and U.S. forces.

The Dogan News Agency said the rockets landed near a police checkpoint close to civilian aviation facilities, sending passengers and airport staff scrambling for shelter inside the civilian terminal.

Diyarbakir Governor Huseyin Aksoy said there were no casualties from that attack and that flights continued to arrive and take off on schedule.

Diyarbakir is the main city in southeastern Turkey, which is largely populated by Kurds.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, dpa, Dogan, and TASS