Dozens of vehicles have rolled out of a besieged Syrian border town, evacuating Kurdish fighters and civilians and opening the way for Turkish-backed forces to take over in the first pullback under a three-day-old US-brokered ceasefire.
Kurdish officials say the evacuation of the town of Ras al-Ayn will be followed by a withdrawal of their forces from a broader section of the border with Turkey, a central requirement of the ceasefire deal.
The withdrawal is supposed to take place before Tuesday evening, when the pause in fighting is set to end.
Questions remain over longer-term arrangements. Turkey says it wants a “safe zone” clear of the Kurdish fighters — who it considers terrorists — across the entire north-east border. That is far longer than the territory the Kurds will leave under the terms of the deal.
The Trump administration negotiated the accord after heavy criticism at home and abroad that it had opened the way for the Turkish invasion by abruptly removing its soldiers from north-east Syria.
That move abandoned the Kurdish-led force, which was allied with the Americans in the bloody, years-long campaign that brought down the so-called Islamic State group’s rule over nearly a third of Syria.
For the moment, the pull-back has focused on Ras al-Ayn, a town that has been a major battle zone since Turkey launched its invasion on October 9.
The ceasefire deal only calls for fighters to leave, but Kurdish civilians fled in the convoy as well, fearing atrocities by the Turkish-backed Syrian forces.
Those fighters, who are Arab and often Islamist extremists, have been accused of killings of Kurdish civilians and captured fighters during this campaign and in other Syrian territory seized in Turkish campaigns since 2017.
The flight of civilians is likely to be repeated in other areas the fighters withdraw from, though most have already fled their homes amid the fighting.
Turkish TV showed a line of vehicles driving through agricultural areas out of town on Sunday. The Turkish military said at least 86 vehicles were involved. The convoys passed through corridors opened by Turkish-backed forces and headed to the town of Tal Tamr further south.
Just before nightfall, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led forces, Kino Gabriel, wrote in a tweet that the evacuation was complete. “We don’t have any more fighters in the city,” he wrote.
The Kurds had been holed up for days in a small pocket on the southern edge of the city, surrounded by the Turkish-backed fighters and engaged in clashes well after the start of the ceasefire. The SDF said 16 of its fighters had been killed and three wounded in the past 24 hours.
Both sides accuse each other of repeatedly violating the three-day old ceasefire. Turkey’s Defence Ministry said one of its soldiers was killed on Sunday in a Kurdish attack with anti-tank weapons and small arms fire near the border town of Tal Abyad.
That brought the Turkish military’s death toll to seven soldiers since it launched its offensive on October 9.
A senior official in the Kurdish-led forces, Redur Khalil, said that after the Ras al-Ayn evacuation, the forces will withdraw from a zone about 75 miles wide and 20 miles deep between Ras al-Ayn and the town of Tal Abyad further west.
That area has been the main theatre of fighting during the offensive, causing the flight of tens of thousands of civilians — Arab and Kurd — from the villages that dot the landscape. At least 160,000 civilians have been displaced by the Turkish assault.