Turkish, U.S. units begin patrols near northern Syria's Manbij

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish and U.S. soldiers have started independent patrols in northern Syria along the line separating Turkish-controlled areas from the town of Manbij where Ankara says Kurdish militia fighters are based, Turkey’s military said on Monday.

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Earlier this month Turkey and the United States endorsed a tentative deal to overcome months of dispute over the town, in which the Kurdish YPG militia would withdraw from Manbij and Turkish and U.S. forces would jointly maintain security and stability there. [nL5N1T64KR]

Ankara has been infuriated by U.S. support for the YPG - which it views as a terrorist organisation - and has threatened to target Manbij because of the presence of Kurdish fighters there, alongside U.S. troops.

“As per the Manbij Roadmap and Safety Principles previously agreed upon, independent patrol activities by soldiers of Turkish Armed Forces and U.S. Armed Forces have begun on the line between (the Turkish-controlled) area and Manbij,” Turkey’s armed forces said on Twitter.

It was not immediately clear whether the independent patrols were separate from the joint actions agreed upon between Ankara and Washington earlier this month, but a spokesman for the Pentagon said the moves were being coordinated.

“Coalition and Turkish forces have begun coordinated but independent patrols near, but not in, Manbij,” spokesman Eric Pahon told Reuters.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, however, said Turkish soldiers would enter Manbij step by step, without elaborating.

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Turkey has launched two cross-border military campaigns along with Syrian rebels in the past two years. The first, dubbed “Euphrates Shield”, was aimed at driving away Islamic State and YPG forces from the border, and the second, called “Olive Branch”, aimed to clear the YPG from the town of Afrin.

The head of the militia controlling the town, the Manbij Military Council, confirmed Turkish troops had begun patrols. The Manbij Military Council is affiliated to the U.S.-backed and YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria.

“On the Manbij side there are Manbij military council and coalition forces doing patrols,” Muhammad Abu Adel told Reuters, adding that Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies were patrolling the other side.

A day after the Manbij roadmap was endorsed, the YPG said its military advisers would leave Syria’s Manbij, saying its fighters had already withdrawn from the area in November 2016.

President Tayyip Erdogan said Kurdish militant were leaving Manbij, a move long sought by Turkey.

“Now the YPG is leaving here (Manbij). We did this through diplomacy,” he said during an election rally in the northern province of Ordu.

Turkey considers the YPG an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency since the 1980s. More than 40,000 have died in clashes.

Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu, Daren Butler, Lisa Barrington in Beirut, Idrees Ali in Washington; Writing by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Dominic Evans and Alison Williams