U.S.-allied militia agrees to hand villages to Syrian govt

BEIRUT (Reuters) - A U.S.-allied militia in northern Syria said on Thursday it would hand over villages on a front line where it has been fighting Turkish-backed rebels to Syrian government control, under an agreement with Russia.

FILE PHOTO: A road sign shows the direction to Manbij city, as seen from the western entrance of the city, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria June 19, 2016. The Arabic words read 'Under the Islamic State rule, you insure your self, money, religion and honour'. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

The villages will be surrendered to the Syrian government in the coming days, an official in the Manbij Military Council told Reuters. An earlier statement by the council said the villages would be handed to Syrian border guards.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara the report was false, but added there was an agreement with Russia that Syrian government and opposition forces should not fight each other in that area.

The villages west of the city of Manbij have been a focus of fighting between the Turkish-backed rebels and the Manbij Military Council, the U.S.-allied militia, since Wednesday.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said this week Manbij was the next target of Ankara’s campaign in northern Syria following the capture of nearby al-Bab from Islamic State last week.

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“We will move towards Manbij after the al-Bab operation is completed, but the operation has not started yet. We know that the U.S. special forces are in that region, and we want the YPG to leave Manbij as soon as possible,” Cavusoglu said.

The Manbij Military Council is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S.-backed group of militias that includes the powerful Kurdish YPG group. The SDF captured the area around Manbij from Islamic State militants last year.

Turkey’s campaign in Syria is aimed at driving Islamic State from its border and at preventing expansion in the area by the YPG, which it regards as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is waging an insurgency against Ankara.

Cavusoglu said Turkey did not want the United States to continue cooperating with Kurdish groups and added that Turkey had repeatedly warned it would strike Kurdish militants if they remained in Manbij.

The multi-sided Syrian conflict began in 2011, drawing in regional states, the United States and Russia and leading to the country’s fragmentation into a patchwork of areas controlled by different armed groups.

Reporting by Tom Perry and Angus McDowall in Beirut and Tulay Karadeniz and Ece Toksabay in Ankara; Editing by Andrew Roche