Turkey has handed over 18 men believed to be Syrian government soldiers who were seized in northeast Syria near the Turkish border earlier this week, the Turkish Defense Ministry said.
The Ministry did not say who they were handed over to, but said the move came about after coordination with Russia. It took place ahead of the scheduled start on Friday of joint Turkish-Russian military patrols in northeastern Syria near the border.
The 18 men were seized during operations southeast of the Syrian border town of Ras al Ain on Tuesday, the Ministry said.
Ras al Ain is within the region targeted by Turkey in the offensive it launched on Oct. 9, together with allied Syrian rebels, to force the Kurdish YPG militia away from the border.
Turkish forces have seized control of some 120 km (75 miles) of land between Ras al Ain, and another frontier town Tel Abyad.
Ankara and Moscow agreed last week to remove YPG fighters to a depth of 30 km (19 miles) south of the border inside Syria. Russia told Turkey that the YPG had left the strip within the 150-hour deadline.
On Wednesday, President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey had information that the YPG, which Ankara sees as a terrorist group because of its ties to Kurdish militants fighting an insurgency in southeast Turkey, had not completed its pullout.
He said Turkey’s joint patrols with Russia were starting on Friday at a depth of 7 km (4 miles) within Syria. Initially the patrols were planned to be at a depth of 10 km.
Russia is the Syrian government’s most powerful ally and helped it turn the tables in the country’s civil war, by retaking much of the country from rebels since 2015. The Turkish-Russian deal last week allowed Syrian government forces to move back into border regions, from which they had been absent for years.
Ankara launched its offensive against the YPG, which helped the United States smash the Islamic State “caliphate” in Syria, following President Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of 1,000 American troops from northern Syria in early October.
Erdogan said on Thursday night that Turkey planned to establish a “refugee town or towns” in a “safe zone” between Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain, part of a project which state media have said would cost 151 billion lira ($26 billion).
He was meeting U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Friday morning and said he would ask him to call for a donors’ meeting to help finance Ankara’s plans for the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the region.
“I will say: ‘You make a call for an international donors’ meeting. If you don’t, I will make this call’,” Erdogan said in a conference speech.
“If it doesn’t happen, we will establish a refugee town or towns between Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain,” he said, addressing a building contractor in the hall and saying he would ask him to play a role in the project.
Ankara has said it plans to resettle in Syria up to 2 million of the 3.6 million Syrian war refugees that it hosts.
According to plans which Erdogan presented at the United Nations General Assembly in September, Turkey would resettle some 405,000 people between Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain.
Erdogan said leaders at the General Assembly had looked positively on the plans but declined to offer money. He strongly criticised international reaction to the Syrian refugee issue.
“We have for years hosted millions of refugees in our lands. The support we have received from the international community has unfortunately just been advice,” Erdogan said.
“The mentality that regards a drop of oil as more valuable than a drop of blood does not see anything but its own interest in Syria and everywhere in the world,” he added
Last week Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the United States would beef up its military presence in Syria with “mechanized forces” to prevent Islamic State militants seizing oil fields and revenue.