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story.lead_photo.caption In this April 4, 2018 file photo, a U.S. soldier sits in an armored vehicle on a road leading to the tense front line with Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria. The spokesman of the Manbij Military Council, a U.S.-backed militia, said Thursday Nov. 1, 2018, that joint U.S.-Turkish patrols will begin within hours around the northern Syrian town of Manbij, part of a roadmap for easing tensions between the two NATO allies. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

ANKARA, Turkey -- Turkish and U.S. troops on Thursday began jointly patrolling areas around the northern Syrian town of Manbij, part of a road map for easing tensions between the two NATO allies, Turkey's defense minister announced.

Responding to questions by legislators in Parliament, Hulusi Akar said the patrols began at 3:53 p.m. local time but did not provide further details.

Sharfan Darwish, spokesman of the Manbij Military Council, said earlier that the patrols had started and were taking place on the front lines between his group and those of Turkey-backed rebels in the operation called Euphrates Shield.

Ankara and Washington agreed on a road map in June over Turkish demands for the withdrawal of the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia that freed Manbij from the Islamic State group in 2016.

The U.S. and the Turks have been conducting independent patrols along the front line and joint patrols are considered a way to tamp down potential violence between the various groups in the region. The sides have conducted 68 independent patrols before the combined patrols started.

U.S. Central Command said in a news release that a ground force commander agreed on by both countries will lead the joint patrols.

Maj. Gen. Christopher Ghika, deputy commander of the operation, said recent training by Turkish and coalition forces will help them to protect Manbij civilians.

"We're fully supportive of the road map and the combined joint patrols, and I am confident they will be very effective," he said.

Separately, the U.S. expressed "great concern" over Turkey's shelling of the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in an area of northern Syria where American forces are embedded.

"Unilateral military strikes into northwest Syria by any party, particularly as American personnel may be present or in the vicinity, are of great concern to us," deputy State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said a news conference Wednesday in Washington. The U.S. has been in touch with Turkey and a Kurdish-dominated Syrian militia to emphasize the need "to de-escalate the situation," he said.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to crush separatist Kurdish militants east of the Euphrates River, after his army's capture of Afrin, a Kurdish stronghold in northwest Syria, earlier this year. Turkey claimed to have killed over a dozen Kurdish militants in cross-border shelling since Saturday and Erdogan has dismissed the Pentagon's concern that the military drive could weaken the battle against Islamic State in southern Syria, where Kurdish fighters form the backbone of the U.S.-led campaign.

Ankara sees the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units militia as an extension of the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party that has battled the Turkish military since the 1980s, and is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Turkey. Relations with the U.S. have been strained over Washington's support for the Kurdish fighters, and while a direct confrontation between their forces is unlikely, Turkey's vow to clear Kurdish fighters from areas where U.S. troops are stationed requires extreme care to avoid unintended American casualties.

"Coordination and consultation between the United States and Turkey on issues of security concern is a better approach," Palladino said.

After an exchange of cross-border fire, Turkish police seized a vehicle carrying more than 545 pounds of explosives in the southeastern province of Mardin, state-run Anadolu Agency reported.

Palladino said the U.S. is fully committed to Turkey's border security but at the same time expressed Washington's commitment to the Kurdish-dominated Syrian forces. The campaign against Islamic State "is not over and that fight remains difficult," he said.

Information for this article was contributed by Suzan Fraser and Bassem Mroue of The Associated Press and by Selcan Hacaoglu of Bloomberg News.

A Section on 11/02/2018

Print Headline: U.S., Turks team on Syria patrols

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