Syrian rebels seize villages near Turkey from ISIS

Turkey also sent more tanks into the northern Syrian village of al-Rai to fight ISIS extremists

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Turkish-backed Syrian rebels seized several villages from ISIS near the town of al-Rai, from where the rebel groups launched a new operation against the militants earlier on Saturday, a rebel official said.

“They took several villages, about eight villages. At first they took two and withdrew from them, but then reinforcements came and there was an advance,” Zakaria Malahifji of the Aleppo-based Fastaqim group told Reuters.

The areas seized were to the east and south of al-Rai, which is 2 km (1 mile) from the Turkish border.

Earlier, the Hamza Brigade, a group fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, said it had taken control of Arab Ezza, a village near which Turkish warplanes carried out air strikes on Friday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group confirmed the rebels had taken Arab Ezza and said they had seized at least one other village nearby.

Turkey on Saturday also sent more tanks into the northern Syrian village of al-Rai to fight ISIS extremists, opening a new front after its intervention last month against the group, state media reported.

The tanks crossed into the village from the Turkish border town of Kilis to provide military support to Syrian opposition fighters after ridding northern villages of extremists in its “Euphrates Shield” operation launched on Aug. 24, state-run Anadolu news agency said.

Meanwhile, Dogan news agency said Turkish tanks crossed into northern Syria from Kilis province on Saturday, while howitzers pounded ISIS positions in the area.

The tanks crossed the border near the Turkish village of Cobanbey, which lies across from al-Rai, Dogan said.

A Reuters cameraman in the area earlier heard a repeated booming sound and saw plumes of smoke rising from the Syrian side of the border.

Turkey has said it has no plans to stay in Syria and simply aims to protect its frontier from the militant group and the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as an extension of the outlawed Kurdish PKK group fighting an insurgency on Turkish soil.

“Nobody can expect us to allow a terror corridor on our southern border,” President Tayyip Erdogan told a news conference.

Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies began the Aug. 24 offensive by seizing Jarablus, a Syrian frontier town, from ISIS, before turning their sights on what the army said were YPG positions. The YPG denied they were there.

In an interview with Reuters on Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus called on the United States to put more pressure on the YPG to return east of the Euphrates river, a move that Turkey hopes would keep the Kurdish militia in check.

The Turkish military said its warplanes had bombed three sites around the Syrian settlements of Arab Ezza and al-Ghundura, west of Jarablus, roughly in the center of the 90-km stretch of territory that Turkey says it aims to clear.

The government has not said it wants to establish a “buffer zone” but its forces are likely to have to stay in the region for some time to support the Syrian rebels it is backing who number just 1,500.

Erdogan said the Turkish operation dubbed “Euphrates Shield” had been successful in clearing ISIS and Kurdish YPG from a 400-sq-km (150-square mile) area.

He denied claims that the YPG, which Ankara calls a terrorist group, had withdrawn to a Kurdish-controlled canton to the east of the Euphrates river, a key Turkish demand.

The YPG says it has already removed its forces from the area of the Turkish-backed campaign. US officials have also said it has mostly withdrawn its forces to the east of the Euphrates, a natural boundary cutting through northern Syria.

“At the moment, they are saying the YPG has crossed (the Euphrates),” Erdogan said. “We are saying no they didn’t. The proof depends on our own observation.”

His comments were echoed by Kurtulmus, the deputy prime minister, who spoke to Reuters while on a visit to Chicago. He urged the United States to work with its NATO ally Turkey on “all different terrorist threats,” a reference to their stark differences in Syria policy.

“We would like to see the pressure of the US on the PYD to go to the east of the Euphrates,” he said. “So it would be very useful if we would apply this operation with the US forces together.”

(With AFP, Reuters)

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