The Latest: US forces setting up positions in north Syria
BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on the Syrian conflict (all times local):
U.S. President Donald Trump the past week has spoken of pulling out of Syria “very soon.” But American forces have been setting up new front-line positions outside the strategic northern town of Manbij, west of the Euphrates River.
The area is the scene of a tense standoff where U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces who hold Manbij face Turkish-backed Syrian fighters. Turkey has vowed to retake Manbij and other Kurdish-held territory along the Syrian-Turkish border; the U.S. troops stationed here are a key reason why they are holding back.
The U.S.-led coalition in Syria had said there are no U.S. bases in the area and that U.S. patrols were not static. There was no immediate comment from the coalition Wednesday.
The leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran have urged the international community to provide more aid for war-ravaged Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin called for bigger humanitarian aid supplies, as well as assistance in clearing land mines and aid to help restore the destroyed infrastructure.
Speaking after Wednesday’s summit in Ankara, Erdogan pointed at the EU’s failure to deliver 3 billion euros in assistance he said it promised for helping restore Syria’s north. He added that Turkey will continue to invest its own funds in rebuilding Syria.
Putin also issued a strong call on other nations to participate more actively in Syria’s restauration efforts.
The leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran say they stand against “separatist” agendas that would undermine Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
In a joint statement released at the end of their summit meeting in Ankara, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday they “rejected all attempts to create new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism.”
They reaffirmed their commitment to working toward achieving cease-fires between conflicting parties in Syria and emphasized commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria.
The statement said the countries reaffirmed determination to continue cooperation ” in order to ultimately eliminate” the Islamic State group and other entities associated with al Qaida.
The leaders said their next summit meeting would take place in Iran.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani says the United States’ pullout from Syria is an excuse for soliciting money from countries that want them to remain there.
During a trilateral summit with Turkish and Russian Presidents, Rouhani said: “One day they say they want to pull out of Syria ..., then it turns out that they are craving money. They have told Arab countries to give them money to remain in Syria.”
The United Nations says up to 100,000 people have returned to the Syrian city of Raqqa after a devastating air campaign by a U.S.-led coalition to drive out Islamic State group fighters.
Jan Egeland of the U.N. Syria envoy’s office estimated Wednesday another 100,000 are waiting outside Raqqa to return. He recounted findings of a Sunday visit by a 25-member U.N. team to Raqqa, the first of its kind since the city was freed in October.
Egeland said team members described devastation “even worse” than in Homs and Aleppo, cities that were recaptured by Russian-backed Syrian government forces.
Local leaders say 70 percent of Raqqa’s buildings are destroyed or damaged and the city is riddled with unexploded bombs, grenades, and explosive traps set by IS.
Syrian state-run media says a Syrian rebel group has released five prisoners as part of a deal with the government and its Russian backers over surrendering their town in eastern Ghouta.
Syrian TV says the release of the five — four women and a man — is part of “efforts by the Syrian government to secure the release of all prisoners in Douma.”
The five had been abducted by the Army of Islam rebel group in Ghouta in 2013 along with many other civilians, it said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed Wednesday’s release. It says the rebel group, which has been accused of abducting human rights activists and others, has several thousand prisoners.
Some rebels from the group have started exiting Douma as part of the agreement.
The Russian military says it expects a rebel evacuation from the suburbs of the Syrian capital to be completed in the coming days.
The Russian Defense Ministry and Syrian rebels struck a deal on Sunday for the Army of Islam, the biggest opposition group in the Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta, to leave the area for the rebel-controlled north.
Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoy of the Russian General Staff told a conference on Wednesday that the rebels are still leaving the town of Douma, but he expects the evacuation to wrap up in the coming days.
The Defense Ministry said earlier Wednesday that more than 3,000 rebels and their family members have evacuated Douma since Sunday.
The evacuation comes after a blistering five-week government offensive in February and March that killed hundreds of people and caused catastrophic damage in the besieged suburbs.
The leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey are meeting in the Turkish capital for talks on Syria’s future.
The leaders are expected to reaffirm their commitment to Syria’s territorial integrity and the continuation of local cease-fires when they meet Wednesday.
The three countries have been working to try and resolve the conflict, which is now in its seventh year. Russia and Iran have provided crucial support to President Bashar Assad’s forces, while Turkey has backed the rebels seeking to overthrow him.
They have sponsored a series talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana, and have set up “de-escalation zones” aimed at reducing the fighting.