ISTANBUL/AKCAKALE (Reuters) - Turkey accused Kurdish militia in northern Syria on Tuesday of driving out civilians in areas it occupies and said it saw signs of “a kind of ethnic cleansing”.
A Turkish official said Turkey had conveyed to Washington, which has led coalition air strikes to support Kurdish fighters, its concern at the displacement of Arabs and Turkmen from the area around the town of Tel Abyad.
Syrian Kurdish forces along with other Arab opposition groups captured Tel Abyad on the Turkish border on Monday from Islamic State.
Ankara is uncomfortable with the gains by Kurdish militia, which now control almost half of the Syrian side of Turkey’s 900-km (560-mile) border, fearing it could inflame separatist sentiment among its own Kurdish minority.
“Daesh (Islamic State) attacks and kills those it captures. PYD/PKK (Kurdish militias) seize certain regions and force people living there to migrate,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told Turkish state broadcaster TRT during a trip to Saudi Arabia.
“It doesn’t matter who comes; the regime, Daesh, the PYD, they are all persecuting civilians.”
He said the latest fighting had triggered a new influx of refugees to Turkey, already hosting 1.8 million Syrians, and that more than 23,000 people had crossed in the past week.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said late on Monday there were signs “pointing toward a kind of ethnic cleansing” by both Kurdish and Islamist groups.
“We see signs that work is being done on a formula to bring in other elements and combine cantons,” Arinc told reporters, referring to two regions controlled by Kurdish forces in northern Syria.
On Sunday, the Kurdish YPG militia denied pursuing a “racist war”. In an online statement, it urged civilians to return to cities controlled by Syrian Kurds, guaranteeing their safety.
President Tayyip Erdogan has voiced concern about the latest YPG-led offensive, saying Kurds were taking over areas where Arabs and Turkmen were being displaced. He has accused the West of backing what he calls Kurdish terrorists and has said the outcome could eventually threaten Turkey’s border.
Over 40,000 have been killed in an armed campaign by Kurdish rebels in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast. Ankara has been conducting peace talks with rebel leaders, but suspicions remain especially among nationalists that Turkey’s Kurds could seek to unite with Syrian and Iraqi Kurds in a contiguous state.
The capture of Tel Abyad means Syrian Kurds effectively control some 400 km (250 miles) of the Syrian-Turkish border that has been a conduit for foreign fighters joining Islamic State.
“Turkey’s discomfort regarding Tel Abyad has been conveyed to the United States both in Ankara and in Washington,” a Turkish official told Reuters.
“There is an attempt at a demographic adjustment.”
The border area was quiet on Tuesday, with a small group of less than a hundred people crossing back into Syria after Islamic State fighters fled the town.
Additional reporting by Daren Butler in Istanbul and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Writing by Daren Butler and Dasha Afanasieva; Editing by Ralph Boulton