Turkey says civilians are returning to areas in Syria once held by "Islamic State" militants. It comes amid quarrels between Ankara, Washington and Moscow over military tactics in the country.
Turkey's deputy prime minister said Wednesday that Syrian refugees in the country were being encouraged to return to their homes in areas retaken from the "Islamic State" (IS) group by Turkish troops and allied Syrian rebels who launched an offensive there two weeks ago.
Nurettin Canikli said Turkey would supply electricity to Jarablus on Saturday followed by water supplies days later. Turkish media reports and unnamed officials said up to 292 people had returned to the liberated town, which lies near the Euphrates south-west of the Turkish city Gaziantep, on Wednesday. A photographer for the AFP news agency reported seeing hundreds of civilians queuing at the border gate.
Turkey hosts 3 million Syrian refugees and has been pressing world powers to back its plans to create a "safe zone" in northern Syria. Ankara has pressed on carving out territory with its Syrian rebel allies despite a lack of international support.
The United Nations has in the past expressed caution about encouraging returns of civilians too soon.
Turkey's intervention had the aim of driving IS forces back from its border and also halting the advance of Kurdish forces - some backed by the US. Ankara sees Kurdish militias in Syria as a threat, given it's been fighting a more than 30-year on-off insurgency within Turkey by the outlawed PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party).
Russia, US criticize Turkey
Ankara's tactics have been criticized by its NATO ally the US and also by Russia, with which it recently remedied ties. While Washington says Turkish attacks on Kurdish-aligned militias damaged a coalition fighting the IS, Russia said Ankara's southwards push could complicate international efforts to reach a peace deal.
"We call on Ankara to refrain from any steps which can further destabilize the situation in Syria," Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday, adding that the operation had not been sanctioned by the UN Security Council or the Syrian government.
Sights set on Raqqa
In comments published Wednesday in the Turkish daily "Hurriyet," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he had told US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in China that Ankara would support a joint operation to take Raqqa, the Syrian city which is the de facto capital of the IS militant group.
"Obama wants to do something together especially on the issue of Raqqa," Erdogan was quoted as saying. "I said there would be no problem from our perspective."
"IS" took over the city in 2014, when it declared a caliphate.
Meeting or no meeting?
The Russian Foreign Ministry announced Wednesday that its Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov would meet in Geneva on Thursday and Friday with his US counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry. However that meeting was not confirmed by the US State Department, indicating the rival powers had not resolved their differences on how to end the five-year conflict. US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to clinch a deal while meeting in China on Monday.
Russia is a major ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while the US backs rebels fighting to overthrow him.
The diplomatic wrangling came amid reports of civilian deaths in air raids as well as reports of chlorine gas attacks in Aleppo and deadly airstrikes near the strategically important town of al-Bab.
It also came as a Syrian opposition grouping, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), presented its plan for a post-war political transition in London. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who hosted a meeting of the HNC and international representatives, said if the Russians and Americans could create a ceasefire, peace talks could restart based on the HNC's proposals.
"If what the Russians and the Americans agree upon is very much different from what the Syrians aspire to, then we shall not accept it," said Riad Hijab of the HNC.
se/kl (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)