Original article by Associated Press, October 31, 2019
ISTANBUL – Turkey’s defense minister said Thursday its forces captured 18 Syrian government soldiers in northeastern Syria, including two who are wounded.
Hulusi Akar said the soldiers were captured during Turkish reconnaissance southeast of Ras al-Ayn, but didn’t say when. Ankara was already in talks with Russia to hand over the Syrian soldiers, he added, according to the official ministry website on Thursday. Akar was speaking during a visit to Turkish troops at the border.
A Syrian Kurdish official said the soldiers were captured Tuesday during an intense battle between Syrian government forces and Turkey-backed fighters. Kurdish fighters were fighting alongside the Syrian troops. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.
The town of Ras al-Ayn has been a flashpoint in Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria that has sought to drive back Kurdish fighters from its borders.
Turkey agreed to a cease-fire brokered by Russia on Oct. 22. Under the deal, Kurdish fighters would withdraw to 30 kilometers (19 miles) away from the Turkish border and Syrian government forces would take positions along the frontier. Joint Turkish-Russian patrols are due to begin Friday.
Turkey launched its cross-border operation earlier in the month to push out Syrian Kurdish fighters who had partnered with U.S. forces against the Islamic State group. The invasion came after President Donald Trump ordered American forces to step aside. The U.S. negotiated an initial cease-fire. Ankara views the Syrian Kurdish fighters as an extension of the decades-long Kurdish insurgency in southeastern Turkey.
Largely abandoned by their U.S. allies, the Kurdish fighters have leaned on Russia and the Syrian government forces to fend off Turkey’s invasion.
But the truce has been marred by accusations of violations from both sides.
For days now, Turkey-allied fighters have been fighting Kurdish forces near Abu Rasein, a village between Ras al-Ayn and Tal Tamr, despite the deployment of Syrian government forces. Syrian state media also reported some government soldiers clashed with the Turkey-backed forces.
The Kurdish official said the Syrian government forces withdrew from the area after their soldiers were captured.
A war monitor group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, also reported that Syrian troops pulled out from the Tal Tamr area on Wednesday, amid a Turkish-backed advance with air cover. The Syrian withdrawal left empty the border post in Darbasiyeh, west of Ras al-Ayn, which Kurdish forces had handed over just days before, according to the Rojava Information Center, an activist group.
Fighting in the area continued Thursday, the Kurdish official said.
Separately, a car bomb went off in a town administered by Turkey-backed forces in northwestern Syria, killing at least eight people.
Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency said another 14 people were wounded in the attack in a vegetable market in Afrin. It said the explosives were packed into a refrigerator truck.
Turkish-led forces captured Afrin from Syrian Kurdish fighters early last year. The area is controlled by Syrian fighters allied with Turkey, who have been accused by rights groups of seizing land and property . The area sees sporadic attacks and other violence.
Syria’s state-run SANA news agency also reported the attack, saying nine people were killed and 20 wounded. It said the blast ignited a nearby patrol station and caused damage to surrounding homes and shops.
No one has claimed the attack.