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Joint Turkish and Russian patrols begin in Syrian region

SEVIMLI, Turkey (AP) — Turkey and Russia launched joint patrols Friday in northeastern Syria, under a deal that halted a Turkish offensive against Syrian Kurdish fighters who were forced to withdraw from the border area following Ankara’s incursion.

The Turkish Defense Ministry said an initial patrol covered an area 87 kilometers (54 miles) long and 10 kilometers (6 miles) deep in the al-Darbasiyah region, assisted by drones. “The first joint patrol was completed as planned,” the statement said.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the joint patrol included nine military vehicles, including a Russian armored personnel carrier.

Turkey and Russia have agreed the patrols would cover two sections, in the west and east of Turkey’s operation zone in Syria. Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition fighters now control the border towns of Tal Abyad, Ras al-Ayn and nearby villages. The deal on the patrols excludes the city of Qamishli, according to the ministry’s statement on Tuesday.

The first joint patrol did not fly Russian and Turkish flags on their armored vehicles Friday but once the patrol was completed, Russian flags were seen. An Associated Press journalist at the Turkey-Syria border could see the Syrian flag hoisted on a building on the Syrian side. Syrian government troops moved into Kurdish-held areas following an agreement in October.

Turkey last month invaded northeastern Syria to push out Syrian Kurdish fighters, who it considers terrorists for their links to a Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey.

But the U.S. had partnered with the Syrian Kurdish fighters, their top allies in the war against the Islamic State group. The relationship has strained ties between Washington and Ankara who are NATO allies.

After an abrupt and widely criticized decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw American troops from this part of Syria, the Kurdish forces approached the Syrian government and Russia for protection. Syrian government troops and Russian military police subsequently moved into areas along the border.

Two cease-fire agreements -brokered by the U.S. and Russia- paused Turkey’s operation to allow the Syrian Kurdish fighters withdraw 30 kilometers (about 19 miles) from the border.

Russia told Turkey at the end of the 150-hour cease-fire on Tuesday that the Syrian Kurdish fighters were out of the strip of territory, as well as out of the towns of Manbij and Tal Rifaat, west of the Euphrates River.

A Kurdish news agency and a war monitor reported clashes Friday between Kurdish fighters and Turkey-backed opposition gunmen.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting concentrated near the town of Ein Issa and near the town of Zirkan in the northeastern province of Hassakeh. The group said four people were wounded in the Zirkan area.

The Kurdish Hawar news agency reported clashes between the two sides near the northern region of Afrin, that Turkey-backed opposition fighters last year.

Also on Friday, Turkey’s Defense Ministry announced that a Turkish soldier was killed after an improvised explosive device detonated on Thursday, bringing the Turkish military’s death toll to 13 since the start Ankara’s invasion in northeastern Syria on Oct. 9. Mortars fired from Syria during the early phases of the operation killed 21 civilians in Turkey.

Though the truce has mostly held, it has been marred by accusations of violations from both sides and occasional clashes. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to resume the offensive if deemed necessary.

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Associated Press writers Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

Associated Press