Turkey's Erdogan vows to 'crush heads' of Syrian Kurds if they do not withdraw

Ankara said it would suspend its Syria offensive for five days

This picture taken on October 18, 2019 from the Turkish side of the border at Ceylanpinar district in Sanliurfa shows fire and smoke rising from the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain on the first week of Turkey's military operation against Kurdish forces. Sporadic clashes between Turkish forces and Kurdish groups were ongoing in a battleground Syrian border town on October 18, a monitor said, despite Ankara's announcement of a five-day truce. / AFP / Ozan KOSE
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to "crush the heads" of Kurdish fighters on Saturday if they did not withdraw from the areas they control at the end of the five-day ceasefire agreed with the United States.

He made the comments while speaking at an opening ceremony in the central Turkish province of Kayseri, where announced he would hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin about his proposal for a "safe zone" in northern Syria next week.

Turkey said it would suspend its Syria offensive for five days but Mr Erdogan, before his latest comments, said that he would resume a full-scale operation against Kurdish forces if they did not withdraw from a border "safe zone." He said if he cannot reach a solution over the Syrian forces deployed under the auspices of the Russian military in talks with Mr Putin next week, then Ankara will "implement its own plans".

His defence minister, Hulusi Akar, said on Saturday that Turkish troops in northern Syria are ready to continue their offensive if a deal with Washington to pause the conflict while Kurdish fighters withdraw is not fully implemented.

"We paused the operation for five days. In this time, the terrorists will withdraw from the safe zone, their weapons will be collected and position destroyed. If this doesn't happen, we will continue the operation," Mr Akar said.

"Our preparations are ready. With the necessary order, our soldiers are ready to go anywhere," he told an event in Kayseri.

Both sides have accused the other of breaching the ceasefire deal.

The offensive has killed dozens of civilians, mainly on the Kurdish side, and prompted hundreds of thousands to flee their homes in the latest humanitarian crisis of Syria's eight-year civil war.

On Saturday, Turkey accused Kurdish forces of violating the truce.

"The Turkish armed forces fully abide by the agreement" reached on Thursday with the United States, the defence ministry said in a statement.

"Despite this, terrorists... carried out a total of 14 attacks in the last 36 hours," it said, using its usual term for Kurdish fighters.

The ministry said 12 of the attacks came in the battleground border town of Ras Al Ain, one in Tal Abyad and another in the Tal Tamr area.

SDF commander Redur Khalil said deadly bombardments by Turkey's forces on Friday were a major breach of the truce and called on Washington to ensure Ankara honoured its side of the deal.

On Friday, Turkish air strikes and mortar fire by allied Syrian fighters killed 14 civilians in and around the village of Bab Al Kheir, the Observatory said.

"The Turkish side is not committing to the ceasefire and is not allowing the opening of a security corridor to evacuate the wounded and besieged civilians from Ras al-Ain," Mr Khalil said.

"The US side bears responsibility for the non-compliance as it is the guarantor and mediator of the ceasefire."

At home, US President Donald Trump was being criticised by the top Republican in Congress for his decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria.

US Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, writing in the Washington Post, called the move a "strategic nightmare" that made the United States less safe.

His comments came as scattered fighting flared in the north of the country despite a ceasefire deal.

Mr Trump said Mr Erdogan had told him that there had been "minor sniper and mortar fire" in the region "that was quickly eliminated".

He also said the Turkish leader assured him in a call that "he very much wants the ceasefire, or pause, to work."

Mustefa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, accused Turkey, however, of violating the ceasefire deal reached during a visit to Ankara on Thursday by US Vice President Mike Pence.

"Despite the agreement to halt the fighting, air and artillery attacks continue to target the positions of fighters, civilian settlements and the hospital" in the border town of Ras al-Ain in north-eastern Syria, he said.

Mr McConnell on Friday said Trump's decision to withdraw US troops would help Washington's foes and hurt its allies.

"Withdrawing US forces from Syria is a grave strategic mistake," Mr McConnell, the top Republican in Congress, wrote.

"It will leave the American people and homeland less safe, embolden our enemies, and weaken important alliances."

The deal brokered by Mr Pence was meant to provide a pause for the evacuation of Kurdish fighters from a "safe zone" that Turkey wants to control along its border with Syria.

Ankara considers the Kurdish forces to be "terrorists" linked to Kurdish rebels inside Turkey.

"If the promises are kept until Tuesday evening, the safe zone issue will be resolved," Mr Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul.

"If it fails, the operation ... will start the minute 120 hours are over."

The suspension of hostilities appeared to have been designed to help Turkey achieve its main territorial goals without fighting, but its Syrian proxies continued to clash with Kurdish fighters on Friday.

Fourteen civilians were killed in Turkish air strikes and mortar fire by allied Syrian fighters in and around the village of Bab Al Kheir, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The war monitor, which is in Britain, said eight fighters of the SDF – the de facto army of the embattled Kurdish autonomous region – also died.