Syrian Kurdish forces said Tuesday they have totally withdrawn from northern Syria ahead of the end of a cease-fire in Turkey's offensive against them, even as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached agreements with Russia for joint control of the region.
A Kurdish official said fighters had left the border region with Turkey, while a senior U.S. official said that Mazlum Abdi, the chief of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, had told Vice President Mike Pence that all Kurdish fighters have withdrawn.
A senior U.S. official said the U.S. is working with Turkey to see the cease-fire in Turkey's military offensive turn into a permanent halt.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said "some progress has certainly been made. The truth was that it was not in Turkey's interest as a NATO ally to continue with that incursion" against the U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters that it started earlier this month after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew most American troops from the region.
The Syrian Kurds have fought alongside U.S. forces against Islamic State terrorists. But Turkey considers them to be linked with Kurdish separatists who have long fought for autonomy inside Turkey.
The developments along the tense Turkey-Syrian border evolved by the hour. After a lengthy meeting at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed the Kurdish fighters would be kept 30 kilometers along the entire 440-kilometer Turkish-Syrian border and also withdraw from the towns of Manbij and Tel Rifaat.
"According to this agreement," Erdogan said, "Turkey and Russia will not allow any separatist agenda on Syrian territory."
Erdogan said Turkish and Russian forces would conduct joint patrols within 10 kilometers of the border and the two countries would work together for the safe return of Syrian refugees now living in Turkey.
But Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu also disclosed another result of the two-week Turkish offensive: the escape of about 500 people, including Islamist fighters, from captivity in northern Syria after their guards left their posts.
A senior Trump administration official said "the the U.S. is watching for any (Putin-Erdogan) agreement that would undermine the cease-fire reached last Thursday."
Before the Kurdish announcement on its withdrawal, Erdogan contended that while 800 Kurdish fighters had left the border area, about 1,300 remained.
Erdogan said that if the United States, with which he brokered a five-day cease-fire last week, does not live up to its promises to push for the departure of the Kurdish fighters, "We will continue our operation from where we left off with greater determination." The cease-fire expires at 10 p.m. local time (1900 GMT).
The United Nations said the Turkish attack has proved devastating for the region, with more than 176,000 people displaced, including nearly 80,000 children, and "critical infrastructure has been damaged."
After Trump withdrew most American troops from the region, Putin emerged as a key power broker to deal with the fate of the long but narrow strip of land where Erdogan wants to create a "safe zone." Erdogan has sought the removal of Kurdish fighters and communities established to help resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees who have been living in Turkey.
Putin said he believed the good relations with Turkey "will let us find an answer to even the most difficult questions."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, however, said Turkey needs Syria's permission to deploy its forces inside Syria, although Turkey so far has rejected any direct talks with the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad.
Assad criticized Erdogan as the Turkish leader visited Idlib province inside Syria before heading to Russia to meet with Putin.
Syrian state media quoted Assad as calling Erdogan a "thief who robbed factories, wheat and fuel and is today stealing territory" — apparently referring to Turkey's invasion into northeastern Syria to push out the Syrian Kurdish fighters.
The cease-fire has largely held for the five days although both Turkey and the Kurdish fighters have accused each other of violating it, with Turkey saying that one of its soldiers was killed.
On Tuesday, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces contended in a statement to VOA's Kurdish service that although the Kurdish forces had honored the cease-fire, "Turkish army and groups supported by it continued attacking them, causing deaths and injuries among their forces."
Seven hundred or more U.S. troops have moved out of the border region, headed to Iraq, where the U.S. has already deployed 5,000 military personnel. Baghdad, however, said the new arrivals do not have permission to stay in the country.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper had said the additional troops would help defend Iraq and be available to conduct anti-terrorism operations against Islamic State insurgents inside Syria.
With Baghdad saying there was no agreement with the U.S. for the troops to be stationed in Iraq, Esper said on a visit to Saudi Arabia that "eventually their destination is home" back in the United States.
"The aim isn't to stay in Iraq interminably," Esper said, while adding that details of their deployment in Iraq would be worked out with Iraqi defense officials.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is keeping some troops near oil fields in northeastern Syria to protect them from being captured by Islamic State, Esper said Monday.
"We presently have troops in a couple of cities that (are) located right near that area. The purpose is to deny access, specifically revenue to ISIS and any other groups that may want to seek that revenue to enable their own malign activities," Esper said.
In a tweet Sunday, President Trump said, "We have secured the oil."
Jeff Seldin, Nike Ching, VOA Kurdish service contributed to this report.