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Turkey defiant on Syria offensive as US demands ceasefire

Days after US troops abruptly began withdrawing, clashes continued across the region on Thursday, with Kurdish fighters in the border town of Ras al-Ain burning tyres in a bid to blind Ankara's warplanes and digging in against a ground offensive by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels.

Turkey-backed Syrian fighters fire a truck-mounted gun toward the key Syrian border town of Ras al-Ain on 16 October 2019 during the ongoing assault by Turkey and its allies on Kurdish-held border towns in northeastern Syria. Picture: AFP

CEYLANPINAR - Turkey rebuffed international pressure to curb its deadly offensive against Kurdish forces in Syria on Wednesday as US President Donald Trump dispatched his deputy Mike Pence to Ankara to demand a ceasefire.

But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed Turkey's operation - which has been facilitated by the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria - would continue.

An another front, Kurdish forces struck a desperate deal with Damascus and stepped aside to allow Syrian regime troops and allied Russian soldiers enter the border town of Kobane on Wednesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Kobane is a highly symbolic town for Syria's Kurds, whose forces had in 2015 wrested the town from Islamic State (IS) group control in an epic battle backed by the US-led coalition.

Days after US troops abruptly began withdrawing, clashes continued across the region on Thursday, with Kurdish fighters in the border town of Ras al-Ain burning tyres in a bid to blind Ankara's warplanes and digging in against a ground offensive by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels.

The Turkish operation, now in its second week, has triggered a flurry of diplomacy among major powers.

Trump sent Pence along with his top diplomat Mike Pompeo to Turkey amid the greatest crisis in relations for decades between the NATO allies, with talks due in Ankara early Thursday.

Facing a barrage of criticism in Washington for abandoning the Kurds, Trump has slapped sanctions on three Turkish ministers and raised tariffs on its steel industry.

Pence's office said the US would pursue "punishing economic sanctions" unless there was "an immediate ceasefire".

But Erdogan told parliament that the only way to solve Syria's problems was for the Kurdish forces to "lay down their arms... destroy all their traps and get out of the safe zone that we have designated."

TRUMP SAYS KURDS 'PROTECTED'

Trump again dismissed the idea that pulling out 1,000 troops - practically the entire US contingent in the region - had been a betrayal of Kurdish militants who bore the brunt of the fight against IS in recent years.

"The Kurds are very well protected," Trump told reporters at the White House. "By the way, they are not angels."

Trump also said he believed the Kurdish PKK are "more dangerous of a terrorist threat" than IS, echoing Erdogan's rhetoric.

Ankara says Syria's main Kurdish force, the People's Protection Units (YPG), is a "terrorist" offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a bloody insurgency inside Turkey since 1984.

Moscow has stepped into the void left by the US withdrawal, deploying patrols to prevent clashes between Syrian and Turkish forces.

The Kremlin said it would host Erdogan for a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the coming days, to ensure the operation does not turn into all-out war between Turkey and Syria.

The Turkish government can count on widespread support for its operation at home, where a decades-long bloody insurgency by Kurdish militants have killed tens of thousands of people.

But Western powers fear it will endanger the battle against IS. Thousands of IS prisoners are held in Kurdish-run camps in the region.

Europe has taken an increasingly tough line with Turkey and several countries, including Britain, France and Germany, have imposed arms embargoes on Turkey over the operation.

JIHADIST FEARS

The UN Security Council warned in a unanimously adopted statement of a risk of "dispersion" of jihadist prisoners, but stopped short of calling for an end to Turkey's offensive.

The head of Belgium's national anti-terrorist agency on Wednesday said two Belgian jihadists have escaped from detention in recent days.

Since launching their assault on 9 October, Turkey and its Syrian rebel proxies have secured more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) of border, but Ras al-Ain has held out.

Erdogan wants to create a buffer zone stretching 30 kilometres from the border into Syrian territory.

He wants to destroy Kurdish hopes of an autonomous enclave that could serve as a launching pad for attacks in Turkey, and to resettle some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees Ankara is hosting.

Erdogan said that once the safe zone was established, "stretching from Manbij to the Iraqi border", then the operation would have "ended on its own".

The offensive has left dozens of civilians dead, mostly on the Kurdish side, and displaced at least 160,000 people.

Hundreds of Syrian Kurds entered neighbouring Iraqi's Kurdish autonomous region Wednesday, mostly women and children.

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