Turkey sends more tanks into Syria as ceasefire efforts advance

Turkish soldiers preparing for a military operation at the Syrian border as part of their offensive against ISIS in Syria on Aug 27, 2016.
Turkish soldiers preparing for a military operation at the Syrian border as part of their offensive against ISIS in Syria on Aug 27, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

KARKAMIS (AFP) - Turkey on Saturday (Aug 27) sent more tanks into Syria to bolster a military offensive against jihadists and Kurdish fighters, as a diplomatic push for a new ceasefire in Syria gathered pace.

An AFP photographer in the village of Karkamis on the Turkish side of the border saw six more tanks roll over the frontier as mop-up operations continued in a town wrested from ISIS.

Sporadic explosions were heard from over the border as Turkish-backed rebels carried out de-mining work in the town of Jarabulus seized from ISIS on Wednesday.

The state-run Anadolu news agency confirmed that the rebels were working to destroy explosives left behind by ISIS militants, with 20 different sets destroyed on Friday alone.

The deployment was the latest phase in Turkey's military operation inside Syria - codenamed "Euphrates Shield" - to oust ISIS from the border region and also counter advances by a Kurdish militia opposed by Ankara.

As Turkey stepped up its biggest operation in Syria since the start of the war, the US and Russia announced progress in talks on agreeing a new ceasefire.

Meanwhile, the evacuation of Daraya, a town crushed by a four-year Syrian army siege, continued, with hundreds of fighters and their families arriving in rebel-held territory in the northwest.

In Geneva on Friday, US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov said they had cleared key obstacles in ceasefire talks but had yet to reach a final deal.

"Today I can say that we achieved clarity on the path forward" for a revamped cessation of hostilities, Kerry said.

Lavrov concurred, saying that "very important steps" had been made on a deal to stop the violence.

Russia, a staunch ally of Assad's regime, has been backing government forces with air strikes on rebel-held areas.

The US supports Syria's main opposition alliance and some rebel factions.

There had been hope that Friday's talks might lead to a breakthrough on the battered northern city of Aleppo, where fighting between government and rebel forces has escalated in recent weeks, leaving hundreds dead.

But neither side gave pledges on getting much-needed aid into the city.

And Turkey's offensive in Syria added yet another layer of complexity to the tangled web of powers jockeying for influence in the war-torn country.

Turkey's leadership has made clear that its offensive is also aimed at holding back the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia, which has led the fight against ISIS in the area.

Ankara says that the YPG has failed to stick to a promise made by its US allies that the militia would move back east across the Euphrates following the seizure of the town of Manbij from ISIS earlier this month.

Turkey sees the YPG militia and its Democratic Union Party (PYD) political wing, which have links to Kurdish rebels in southeast Turkey, as "terror groups" bent on carving out an autonomous Kurdish region.

Turkey has continued sending in tanks since Wednesday's lighting operation to help rebels rout ISIS from Jarabulus.

Helped by Turkish forces, the rebels retook the town, which had been in ISIS hands since 2013, without a fight.

Hurriyet daily reported that Turkey had 50 tanks and 380 personnel on the ground in Syria after three days of operations.

The Turkish troops are supporting an even larger force of hundreds of Syrian rebels.

On Thursday, Turkey shelled Syrian Kurds south of Jarabulus but there have been no reports of further activity against the group since then.

Hurriyet said the Turkish forces had been given an order to "strike immediately" should the YPG be seen to make any move towards the liberated town.

Elsewhere, rebel fighters leaving the town of Daraya near Damascus, which had held out against an army siege for four years, began arriving in the rebel-held city of Idlib.

At least five buses carrying fighters and their families arrived on Saturday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Daraya was one of the first towns to rise up against President Bashar al-Assad in 2012. From a symbol of revolt it became a symbol of the fierce suffering caused by the war, with the army siege causing acute hunger.

The rebels said they were forced to give up the town because of deteriorating humanitarian conditions, accusing Damascus of "starve or surrender" tactics.

Some 8,000 civilians left in the town are also being evacuated.