North Korea’s Kim to unveil ‘new path’ in New Year speech after U.S. misses deadline

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is set to make a closely watched New Year address on Wednesday which is likely to offer a glimpse of a “new path” he has vowed to take if the United States fails to meet his deadline to soften its stance over denuclearization.

The New Year address is expected to touch upon a wide range of issues from foreign affairs and military development to the economy and education.

In his 2019 speech, Kim said he might have to change course if Washington sticks to its pressure campaign and demands unilateral action, while stressing a “self-reliant” economy, a drive he has launched amid tightening sanctions.

The United States was on track to ignore a year-end deadline set by Kim, which Washington has downplayed as artificial, to show more flexibility to reopen talks aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

The upcoming speech is expected to be the culmination of an ongoing meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s 7th Central Committee, a key policy-making body, which Kim convened on Saturday. It was still under way on Tuesday, state media said.

Discussions at the gathering remain largely unknown, but official media KCNA said on Tuesday that Kim spent seven hours during a Monday session discussing state, economic and military building. On Sunday, he called for “positive and offensive measures” to ensure the country’s security.

“The Central Committee plenary meeting is meant to legitimize the process behind the policy decisions Kim Jong-un will announce in his New Year speech,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

“This meeting is to provide political justification for the economic and security policies Pyongyang will pursue in 2020.”

North Korea has provided few hints for what the “new path” may involve, but U.S. military commanders said Pyongyang next move could include the testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which it has halted since 2017, alongside nuclear bomb tests.

U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien warned Washington would be “extraordinarily disappointed” if North Korea tests a long-range or nuclear missile, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he hoped it would choose peace over confrontation.

“We still maintain our view that we can find a path forward to convince the leadership in North Korea that their best course of action is to create a better opportunity for their people by getting rid of their nuclear weapons. That’s our mission set,” Pompeo told Fox News on Monday.

The U.S. Air Force flew an RC-135 surveillance plane over South Korea on Monday and Tuesday, according to military flight tracker Aircraft Spots.

Despite mounting speculation over a potential military provocation, any restart of an ICBM test would risk a personal relationship with Trump, which Pyongyang has repeatedly touted while denouncing Pompeo and other aides, analysts say.

Cho Tae-yong, a former South Korean deputy national security advisor, said Kim had few options that can leave the Trump ties intact.

“In any case, North Korea would add a lot of caveats before and after testing to make sure they’re not intent on destroying the negotiating table and it was the Americans who betrayed them,” Cho told Reuters.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Michael Perry)

‘Before it is too late’: Diplomats race to defuse tensions ahead of North Korea’s deadline

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – A last minute flurry of diplomacy aimed at engaging with North Korea ahead of its declared year-end deadline for talks has been met with stony silence from Pyongyang so far, with the looming crisis expected to top the agenda at summits in China next week.

The U.S. special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, was due to leave Beijing on Friday after meeting with Chinese officials. Earlier in the week, Biegun also made stops in Seoul and Tokyo for discussions with counterparts.

It is unclear if Biegun had any behind-the-scenes contact with North Korean officials, but his overtures and calls for new talks were not publicly answered by Pyongyang.

Biegun’s trip came as China and Russia teamed up this week to propose a resolution that would ease some United Nations Security Council sanctions on North Korea as a way to jumpstart talks.

Next week, Chinese, South Korean and Japanese leaders are due to meet in China, with North Korea likely to top the agenda.

“It’s kind of creepy that there haven’t been any statements from high level (North Korea) Foreign Ministry officials this week…,” Jenny Town, managing editor at the North Korea monitoring website 38 North, said on Twitter. “The silence, even after Biegun’s speech in Seoul, makes me concerned.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has given the United States until the end of the year to propose new concessions in talks over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and reducing tensions between the long-time adversaries.

North Korea has said it is up to the United States to decide what “Christmas gift” it will receive this year, without specifying what Kim’s decision may be.

The prospect that 2020 may see a return to heightened tensions and major missile or weapons tests by North Korea has led politicians, diplomats, and analysts around the world to debate how to salvage diplomacy after U.S. President Donald Trump’s unprecedented summits with Kim over the past two years failed to make a breakthrough.

On Wednesday, four leading Democrats in the U.S. Senate wrote a letter to Trump arguing that U.S. efforts to establish peace on the peninsula and denuclearize North Korea “appear to be stalled and on the brink of failure”.

“We reiterate our hope that you will execute a serious diplomatic plan before it is too late,” the letter said.

‘THE BEST PLAN’

The Senate Democrats’ letter called for the administration to seek an interim agreement to freeze and roll back some of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes in conjunction with reduced pressure from sanctions.

“While such an agreement would of course only be a first step in a longer process, it would nonetheless be an important effort to create the sort of real and durable diplomatic process that is necessary,” they wrote.

China and Russia on Monday introduced a joint proposal that calls on the U.N. Security Council to lift some sanctions on exports and foreign workers, with Chinese officials calling it the “the best plan in the current situation to resolve the stalemate”.

The United States has said it is opposed to any sanctions relief at the moment, but has also said it is willing to be flexible in discussions.

Meanwhile, analysts at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank that has often advocated for a hard line against countries such as North Korea and Iran, called for the Trump administration to turn to implement a “maximum pressure 2.0” campaign.

The United States should increase sanctions, target North Korea with offensive cyber operations, and carry out an “aggressive” information campaign against the country, the foundation wrote in a report earlier in December.

A study commissioned by peace activists reported last month that sanctions were disproportionately affecting vulnerable populations in North Korea.

The report for Korea Peace Now! called for lifting all sanctions that may be violating international law or undermining human rights, and to “urgently” try to mitigate the impact on humanitarian efforts.

MILITARY TENSIONS

Recent weeks have seen some U.S. and North Korean officials discussing possible military actions once again.

Earlier this month, Trump angered North Korean officials by suggesting the United States could use military force “if we have to.”

Those remarks led North Korea’s army chief to warn that North Korea would take “prompt corresponding actions at any level.”

North Korea launched several dozen short-range missiles in 2019, and the commander of U.S. air forces in the Pacific said this week that he suspects “some kind of long-range missile” could be North Korea’s “Christmas gift.”

Speaking to reporters in Washington on Tuesday, Gen. Charles Brown said the U.S. military could “dust off pretty quickly and be ready to use” options it had developed during the height of tensions in 2017.

“If the diplomatic efforts kind of fall apart, we’ve got to be ready…we’re already thinking ahead,” he said.

(Editing by Jacqueline Wong)

U.S. senators want Turkey sanctioned over Russia missile system: letter

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen called on the Trump administration on Monday to impose sanctions on Turkey over its purchase of a Russian missile defense system, saying the failure to do so sends a “terrible signal” to other countries.

“The time for patience has long expired. It is time you applied the law,” Van Hollen and Graham said in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seen by Reuters. “Failure to do so is sending a terrible signal to other countries that they can flout U.S. laws without consequence,” they said.

Ankara and Washington have been at loggerheads over NATO ally Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 system, which Washington says is not compatible with NATO defenses and poses a threat to its F-35 stealth fighter jets, which Lockheed Martin Corp is developing.

Infuriating many members of Congress, Turkey shrugged off the threat of U.S. sanctions and began receiving its first S-400 deliveries in July. In response, Washington removed Turkey from the F-35 program.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has held off on imposing sanctions despite Trump signing a sweeping sanctions law, known as CAATSA, in 2017 mandating them for countries that do business with Russia’s military.

U.S. lawmakers’ anger toward Turkey deepened after Ankara crossed into Syria for an offensive against Kurdish militias that had helped U.S. forces combat Islamic State militants.

Normally an ardent defender of fellow-Republican Trump, Graham and some others in his party have been harshly critical of the president’s decision to withdraw troops from northeastern Syria, paving the way for the Turkish move against Kurdish fighters.

Van Hollen and Graham have been among the most vocal senators calling for Washington to push back against Turkey.

Trump hosted his Turkish counterpart, Tayyip Erdogan, at the White House for a meeting last month that Trump described as “wonderful.”

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter. Pompeo said on Nov. 26 that Turkey carrying out tests on the Russian defense system was “concerning,” and that talks to resolve the issue were still under way.

The same day, the head of Russia’s state arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, was cited as saying that Moscow hoped to seal a deal to supply Turkey with more S-400 missile systems in the first half of 2020.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

China suspends U.S. military visits to Hong Kong, sanctions U.S.-based NGOs

BEIJING (Reuters) – China said on Monday U.S. military ships and aircraft won’t be allowed to visit Hong Kong, and also announced sanctions against several U.S. non-government organizations for encouraging protesters to “engage in extremist, violent and criminal acts.”

The measures were announced by China’s Foreign Ministry in response to U.S. legislation passed last week supporting anti-government protesters. It said it had suspended taking requests for U.S. military visits indefinitely, and warned of further action to come.

“We urge the U.S. to correct the mistakes and stop interfering in our internal affairs. China will take further steps if necessary to uphold Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity and China’s sovereignty,” said ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily news briefing in Beijing.

China last week promised it would issue “firm counter measures” after U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” which supports anti-government protesters in Hong Kong and threatens China with potential sanctions.

There are fears that the row over Hong Kong could impact efforts by Beijing and Washington to reach preliminary deal that could de-escalate a prolonged trade war between the two countries.

The U.S.-headquartered NGOs targeted by Beijing include the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the International Republican Institute, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House.

“They shoulder some responsibility for the chaos in Hong Kong and they should be sanctioned and pay the price,” said Hua.

In more normal times, several U.S. naval ships visit Hong Kong annually, a rest-and-recreation tradition that dates back to the pre-1997 colonial era which Beijing allowed to continue after the handover from British to Chinese rule.

Visits have at times been refused amid broader tensions and two U.S. ships were denied access in August.

The USS Blue Ridge, the command ship of the Japanese-based Seventh Fleet, stopped in Hong Kong in April – the last ship to visit before mass protests broke out in June.

Foreign NGOs are already heavily restricted in China, and have previously received sharp rebukes for reporting on rights issues in the country including the mass detention of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell and Beijing Monitoring Desk; Editing by Tom Hogue & Simon Cameron-Moore)

U.S.-China trade deal close, White House says, after negotiators speak by phone

By Andrea Shalal, Doina Chiacu and Kevin Yao

WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) – The United States and China are close to agreement on the first phase of a trade deal, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said on Tuesday, after top negotiators from the two countries spoke by telephone and agreed to keep working on remaining issues.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke with Chinese Vice Premier Liu on Tuesday morning, China’s Commerce Ministry said, as the world’s two largest economies try to hammer out a “phase one” deal in a 16-month trade war that is slowing global growth.

They discussed core issues related to the phase one deal, the ministry said.

Completion of a phase one deal had been expected in November, but trade experts and people close to the White House said last week it could slide into the new year, as Beijing presses for more extensive tariff rollbacks and Washington counters with its own demands.

Tuesday’s news lifted markets, with Wall Street’s three major indexes adding slightly to the previous days’ records. Reaching a trade agreement with China is one of U.S. President Donald Trump’s top priorities.

Conway told Fox News the United States and China were nearing agreement on the preliminary deal.

“We’re getting really close and that first phase is significant,” she said, adding that Trump wanted to “do this in phases, in interim pieces because it’s such a large, historic trade deal.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, told reporters on Tuesday, an initial trade deal with China could be reached before the end of the year.

He said China had invited Lighthizer and Mnuchnin to visit Beijing for in-person talks and they were willing to go if they saw “a real chance of getting a final agreement.”

The U.S. trade representative and the Treasury did not respond to requests for comment. A source familiar with the trade talks said the U.S. officials could go to Beijing after the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday.

In October, Trump said he expected to quickly dive into a second phase of talks once “phase one” had been completed, focusing on U.S. complaints that China effectively steals U.S. intellectual property by forcing U.S. firms to transfer their technology to Chinese rivals.

U.S. and Chinese officials, lawmakers and trade experts warn such follow-on negotiations may prove difficult given the November 2020 U.S. presidential election, the difficulties in getting the first-stage done, and the White House’s reluctance to work with other countries to pressure Beijing.

“We continue to negotiate,” Conway said. “But those forced tech transfers, the theft of intellectual property, the trade imbalance of a half a trillion a year with the world’s second largest economy, China – this makes no sense to people.

“But the president wants a deal. But President Trump always waits for the best deal,” she said.

Tuesday’s call took place amid heightened tensions on various fronts between Beijing and Washington, with China saying on Tuesday that it had summoned U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad on Monday to protest the passage in the U.S. Congress of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

China’s foreign ministry said the legislation amounted to interference in a Chinese internal matter.

Commerce Minister Zhong Shan, central bank governor Yi Gang and vice head of state planner Ning Jizhe also participated in the phone call.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Catherine Evans and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. House passes Hong Kong rights bills, Trump expected to sign

By Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed two bills to back protesters in Hong Kong and send a warning to China about human rights, with President Donald Trump expected to sign them into law, despite delicate trade talks with Beijing.

The House sent the bills to the White House after voting 417 to 1 for the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” which the Senate passed unanimously on Tuesday. Strong support had been expected after the House passed a similar bill last month.

The measure, which has angered Beijing, would require the State Department to certify at least once a year that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to qualify for the special U.S. trading consideration that helped it become a world financial center.

It also would provide for sanctions against officials responsible for human rights violations in the Chinese-ruled city.

Demonstrators have protested for more than five months in the streets of Hong Kong, amid increasing violence and fears that Beijing will ratchet up its response to stop the civil disobedience.

The protesters are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to Hong Kong when Britain handed it back to China in 1997.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio was a main sponsor of the Senate-passed bill, which was co-sponsored by Republican Senator Jim Risch and Democratic Senators Bob Menendez and Ben Cardin.

The House passed, by 417 to zero, a second bill, which the Senate also approved unanimously on Tuesday, to ban the export of certain crowd-control munitions to Hong Kong police forces. That measure bans the export of items such as tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and stun guns.

President Trump has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to sign a bill passed by Congress, unless he opts to use his veto.

A person familiar with the matter said the president intended to sign the bills into law, not veto them.

Vetoes would have been difficult to sustain, since the measures passed both the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House with almost no objections.

A two-thirds majority would be required in both the Senate and House to override a veto.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

In Beijing on Wednesday, China condemned the legislation’s passage, and vowed strong countermeasures to safeguard its sovereignty and security.

China’s foreign ministry said this month that China had lodged “stern representations” with the United States about the legislation and urged that it not be passed into law, saying it would not only harm Chinese interests and China-U.S. relations, but the United States’ own interests too.

It said China would “inevitably take vigorous measures to firmly respond, to staunchly safeguard our sovereignty, security and development interests.”

Trump prompted questions about his commitment to protecting freedoms in Hong Kong when he referred in August to its mass street protests as “riots” that were a matter for China to deal with.

Trump has since called on China to handle the issue humanely, while warning that if anything bad happened in Hong Kong, it could be bad for talks to end a trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

On Thursday, the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s main newspaper, the People’s Daily, urged the United States to “rein in the horse at the edge of the precipice” and stop interfering in Hong Kong matters and China’s internal affairs.

“If the U.S. side obstinately clings to its course, the Chinese side will inevitably adopt forceful measures to take resolute revenge, and all consequences will be borne by the United States,” it said in a front-page editorial.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Patricia Zengerle, additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Clarence Fernandez)

Iran launches nuclear enrichment at underground Fordow plant, IAEA confirms

Iran launches nuclear enrichment at underground Fordow plant, IAEA confirms
VIENNA (Reuters) – Iran has begun enriching uranium at its underground Fordow site in the latest breach of its deal with major powers, the U.N. nuclear watchdog confirmed on Monday, adding that Tehran’s enriched uranium stock has continued to grow.

Iran is contravening the deal’s limits on its nuclear activities step by step in response to Washington’s withdrawal from the accord last year and its renewed sanctions on Tehran. Tehran says it can quickly undo those breaches if Washington lifts its sanctions.

In a quarterly report, the International Atomic Energy Agency policing the deal confirmed Iran’s announcement last week that it had begun enriching uranium at its Fordow site buried inside a mountain, something prohibited by the deal. “Since 9 November…, Iran has been conducting uranium enrichment at the plant,” said the confidential IAEA report, obtained by Reuters.

Iran’s stock of enriched uranium has increased, to 372.3 kg, well above the deal’s 202.8 kg cap. The maximum fissile purity to which Iran has enriched uranium so far, however, remains 4.5 %, above the deal’s 3.67% cap but still well below the 20% Iran has achieved before and the 90% required for atomic bomb fuel.

Iran has continued to enrich with centrifuge machines other than its most basic model, the IR-1, which is not allowed under the deal, the IAEA report added. It has enriched with more advanced centrifuges and even installed small numbers of centrifuges not mentioned in the deal, the report showed.

Iran said last week it was working on a advanced prototype of centrifuge that could enrich 50 times as fast as the IR-1, deemed by experts as antiquated and prone to breakdown.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Iran further distances itself from 2015 deal by fueling Fordow centrifuges

Iran further distances itself from 2015 deal by fueling Fordow centrifuges
GENEVA (Reuters) – Iran will start injecting uranium gas into centrifuges at its underground Fordow enrichment facility, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday, a highly symbolic breach that will complicate European efforts to salvage Tehran’s nuclear deal.

Under the 2015 agreement between Iran and world powers, Iran agreed to turn Fordow into a “nuclear, physics and technology center” where 1,044 centrifuges are used for purposes other than enrichment, such as producing stable isotopes, which have a variety of civil uses.

Iran has gradually scaled back its commitments to the deal, under which it curbed its nuclear program in exchange for the removal of most international sanctions, after the United States reneged on the agreement and reimposed sanctions.

The pact allows Iran only to spin the centrifuges at Fordow, located inside a mountain near the Shi’ite holy city of Qom, without injecting gas. Uranium gas injection could allow production of enriched uranium, banned at the facility under the pact.

“Starting from Wednesday, gas will be injected into centrifuges at Fordow as part of part of our fourth step to reduce our nuclear commitments to the deal,” Rouhani said in a televised speech.

He did not specify what kind of gas would be injected into centrifuges at Fordow.

But Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said Iran had informed the agency over “the start of injecting UF6 (uranium hexafluoride) into centrifuges at Fordow on Wednesday”.

The deal bans nuclear material from Fordow and by injecting UF6 into centrifuges, the facility will become an active nuclear site rather than a research plant as permitted under the pact.

“The IAEA was requested to send its inspectors to monitor the process,” Gharibabadi said, quoted by state television. The IAEA monitors Tehran’s compliance with the deal.

The measure will further complicate the chances of saving the accord, which European powers have called on Iran to respect.

“The announcement by Iran on November 5 to increase its enrichment capacity goes against the Vienna agreement, which strictly limits activities in this area,” French foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll said.

Iran said on Monday it had accelerated enrichment by doubling the number of advanced IR-6 centrifuges in operation, adding that it was working on “a prototype called the IR-9, which works 50-times faster than the IR-1 centrifuges”.

“The deal has become a no man’s land. We’re controlling less and less as it crumbles around us,” a senior European diplomat said. “In terms of credibility it becomes harder and harder to not react.”

Rouhani gave another two-month deadline to Britain, France and Germany to salvage the deal by protecting Iran’s economy from crippling U.S. sanctions reimposed in May after Washington’s withdrawal from the deal.

“We can’t unilaterally accept that we completely fulfill our commitments and they don’t follow up on their commitments,” Rouhani said.

Tehran says talks are possible if Washington lifts sanctions and returns to the deal.

“All these measures are reversible if other parties fulfill their commitments … We should be able to sell our oil and to transfer its money into the country,” Rouhani said, referring to U.S. sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors.

(Additional reporting by John Irish in France, Francois Murphy in Vienna, Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva, Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and six other countries imposed sanctions on Wednesday on 25 corporations, banks and people linked to Iran’s support for militant networks including Hezbollah, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement.

The targets were announced by the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) nations – which also include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was on a Middle East trip to finalize details of an economic development plan for the Palestinians, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.

All 25 targets were previously sanctioned by the United States.

“The TFTC’s action coincides with my trip to the Middle East, where I am meeting with my counterparts across the region to bolster the fight against terrorist financing,” Mnuchin said in the Treasury statement.

In Jerusalem on Monday, Mnuchin said the United States would increase economic pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, making the pledge during a Middle East trip that includes visits to U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Sanctions reimposed on Tehran by President Donald Trump after he withdrew the United States from world powers’ 2015 nuclear pact with Tehran have dried up Iranian oil revenues and cut Iranian banks’ ties to the financial world.

Twenty-one of the targets announced Wednesday comprised a vast network of businesses providing financial support to the Basij Resistance Force, the Treasury said.

It said shell companies and other measures were used to mask Basij ownership and control over multibillion-dollar business interests in Iran’s automotive, mining, metals, and banking industries, many of which have operate across the Middle East and Europe.

The four individuals targeted were Hezbollah-affiliated and help coordinate the group’s operations in Iraq, it said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Daphne Psaledakis; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Syrian Kurds accuse Turkey of violations, Russia says peace plan on track

Syrian Kurds accuse Turkey of violations, Russia says peace plan on track
By Tom Perry and Maria Kiselyova

BEIRUT/MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) accused Turkey on Thursday of launching a large land offensive targeting three villages in northeast Syria despite a truce, but Russia said a peace plan hammered out this week was going ahead smoothly.

Under the plan, agreed by presidents Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, Syrian Kurdish forces are to withdraw more than 30 km (19 miles) from the Turkish border, a goal Russia’s RIA news agency, quoting an SDF official, said was already achieved.

Russia said it was sending more military policemen and heavy equipment to help implement the deal, which has already prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to lift sanctions against Turkey and has drawn lavish praise for Erdogan in the Turkish media.

Ankara views the Kurdish YPG militia, the main component in the SDF, as terrorists linked to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey. It launched a cross-border offensive against them on Oct. 9 after Trump ordered U.S. forces out of northeast Syria.

The deal agreed with Putin, which builds on and widens a previous U.S.-brokered ceasefire, helped end the fighting.

But the SDF said in its statement on Thursday that Turkish forces had attacked three villages “outside the area of the ceasefire process,” forcing thousands of civilians to flee.

“Despite our forces’ commitment to the ceasefire decision and the withdrawal of our forces from the entire ceasefire area, the Turkish state and the terrorist factions allied to it are still violating the ceasefire process,” it said.

“Our forces are still clashing,” it said, urging the United States to intervene to halt the renewed fighting.

Turkey’s defense ministry did not comment directly on the SDF report but said five of its military personnel had been wounded in an attack by the YPG militia around the border town of Ras al Ain, near where the three villages are located.

Turkey has previously said it reserves the right to self-defense against any militants who remain in the area despite the truce, a pledge repeated by Erdogan on Thursday.

“If these terrorists don’t pull back and continue their provocations, we will implement our plans for a (new) offensive there,” he said in a speech to local administrators.

‘EVERYTHING IS BEING IMPLEMENTED’

Russia, which as a close ally of President Bashar al-Assad has emerged as the key geopolitical player in Syria, has begun deploying military policemen near the Turkish border as part of the deal agreed on Tuesday in the Russian city of Sochi.

“We note with satisfaction that the agreements reached in Sochi are being implemented,” Interfax news agency quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin as saying.

“Everything is being implemented,” he said.

RIA, citing an SDF official, said the Kurdish fighters had already withdrawn to 32 km (20 miles) away from the border. It also said the Kurds were ready to discuss joining the Syrian army once the crisis in Syria has been settled politically.

Russia will send a further 276 military policemen and 33 units of military hardware to Syria in a week, RIA news agency cited a defense ministry source as saying.

Next Tuesday, under the terms of the Sochi deal, Russian and Turkish forces will start to patrol a 10 km strip of land in northeast Syria where U.S. troops had for years been deployed along with their former Kurdish allies.

The arrival of the Russian police marks a shift in the regional balance of power just two weeks after Trump pulled out U.S. forces, in a move widely criticized in Washington and elsewhere as a betrayal of the Americans’ former Kurdish allies.

The Russian deployments have also further highlighted increasingly close ties between Russia and NATO member Turkey.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, speaking in Brussels on Thursday ahead of a NATO meeting, said Turkey – which annoyed Washington this year by buying Russian-made S400 missile defense systems – was moving in the wrong direction.

“We see them spinning closer to Russia’s orbit than in the Western orbit and I think that is unfortunate,” Esper said.

‘SUPER-POWER OF PEACE’

Despite Trump’s lifting of sanctions on Turkey, distrust persists between Ankara and Washington, and a top Erdogan aide on Thursday criticized U.S. politicians for treating SDF commander Mazloum Kobani as a “legitimate political figure.”

The aide, Fahrettin Altun, told Reuters that Mazloum was a senior leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency in southeast Turkey and which Ankara’s Western allies also deem a terrorist group.

Republican and Democratic U.S. senators urged the State Department on Wednesday to quickly provide a visa to Mazloum so he can visit the United States to discuss the situation in Syria.

The Turkish public has shown strong support for the military operation, encouraged by an overwhelmingly pro-government media.

“The super-power of peace, Turkey,” said the main headline in Thursday’s edition of the pro-government Sabah newspaper.

An opinion poll published by pollster Areda Survey last week showed more than three quarters of Turks supported the so-called Operation Peace Spring.

However, the incursion has deepened a sense of alienation among Turkey’s Kurds, which is also being fueled by a crackdown on the country’s main pro-Kurdish party.

Kurds make up some 18% of Turkey’s 82 million people.

Turkey’s military operation was widely condemned by its NATO allies, which said it was causing a fresh humanitarian crisis in Syria’s eight-year conflict and could let Islamic State prisoners held by the YPG escape and regroup.

(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Orhan Coskun in Ankara and Daren Butler in Istanbul; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Jonathan Spicer)