Erdogan says U.S. not fulfilling Syria deal ahead of Trump talks

Erdogan says U.S. not fulfilling Syria deal ahead of Trump talks
By Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday the United States was not fulfilling its pledge to remove a Kurdish militia from a Syrian border region and he will raise the issue when he meets President Donald Trump next week.

A month ago, Turkey launched a cross-border offensive with Syrian rebels against Kurdish YPG fighters. After seizing control of a 120-km (75-mile) swathe of territory, it reached a deal with the United States to keep them out of that area.

Erdogan is set to discuss implementation of the agreement with Trump in Washington on Nov. 13, after confirming that the visit would go ahead following a phone call between the leaders overnight.

“While we hold these talks, those who promised us that the YPG…would withdraw from here within 120 hours have not achieved this,” he told a news conference, referring to a deadline set in last month’s agreement.

Turkish officials had previously said Erdogan might call off the U.S. visit in protest at U.S. House of Representatives’ votes to recognize mass killings of Armenians a century ago as genocide and to seek sanctions on Turkey.

After the deal with Washington, Ankara also reached an agreement with Moscow under which the YPG was to withdraw to a depth of 30 km along the entirety of the northeastern Syrian border with Turkey.

But Erdogan said this deal had also not been fulfilled, with YPG fighters still in the border strip, adding that he would hold talks with Putin soon on the issue.

A senior U.S. State Department official said late on Wednesday there has been fighting in the area southeast of Syria’s border town of Ras al-Ain. It “is somewhat in dispute” whether the area is covered by the U.S. or Russian deals.

“The YPG and all armed forces have certainly withdrawn from the vast majority of our area,” the official said. “Erdogan is never all that specific in his broadside attacks on us or anybody else.”

CLASHES IN SYRIA

Speaking to reporters before a visit to Hungary, Erdogan said clashes in Syria were continuing, with 11 fighters from the Turkey-backed rebel Syrian National Army (SNA) killed on Thursday.

“These terrorists are attacking the SNA, and the SNA is retaliating in kind. There are 11 martyrs from the SNA this morning. Many more were killed on the other side,” he said.

Under the two bilateral deals, Ankara stopped its offensive in return for the withdrawal of the YPG fighters. Turkish and Russian soldiers have so far held two joint patrols near the border to monitor implementation of their agreement.

Ankara considers the YPG a terrorist group because of its ties to militants who have fought an insurgency in southeast Turkey since 1984. U.S. support for the YPG, which was a main ally in the fight against Islamic State, has infuriated Turkey.

Ankara began its offensive against the YPG after Trump announced an abrupt withdrawal of 1,000 U.S. troops from northern Syria in early October. The U.S. president has since said that some troops will continue to operate there.

Late on Wednesday, the commander of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces said the group was resuming work with the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria.

“As a result of a series of meetings with Coalition leaders, #SDF is resuming its joint program of work with the Coalition to combat #ISIS and securing the infrastructure of NE #Syria,” Mazloum Kobani wrote on Twitter.

Turkish sources say Trump and Erdogan have a strong bond despite anger in Congress over Turkey’s Syria offensive and its purchase of Russian air defenses, and despite what Ankara sees as the U.S. president’s own erratic pronouncements.

Those personal ties could prove crucial, given NATO member Turkey’s purchase of Moscow’s S-400 missile defense system, which under U.S. law should trigger sanctions.

Turkey has already been suspended from the F-35 fighter jet program in which it was both joint producer and customer, and the offensive it launched against Kurdish forces in northeast Syria on Oct. 9 set the stage for further U.S. retaliation.

Unal Cevikoz, deputy chair of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), told Reuters that Erdogan will likely ask Trump to disarm the YPG forces and ensure they do not return to the border region.

“There is not a full harmony between the approaches of the United States and Turkey in the Syrian quagmire,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Jonathan Spicer in Turkey and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Editing by Dominic Evans)

Turkey’s Erdogan may call off U.S. trip after Congress votes: officials

Turkey’s Erdogan may call off U.S. trip after Congress votes: officials
By Orhan Coskun and Dominic Evans

ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan may call off a visit to Washington next week in protest at votes in the House of Representatives to recognize mass killings of Armenians a century ago as genocide and to seek sanctions on Turkey, three Turkish officials said.

Erdogan is due in Washington on Nov. 13 at President Donald Trump’s invitation, but said last week that the votes put a “question mark” over the plans.

“These steps seriously overshadow ties between the two countries. Due to these decisions, Erdogan’s visit has been put on hold,” a senior Turkish official said, adding that a final decision had not been taken.

Turkish sources say Trump and Erdogan have a strong bond despite anger in Congress over Turkey’s Syria offensive and its purchase of Russian air defenses, and despite what Ankara sees as Trump’s own erratic pronouncements.

Those personal ties could be crucial given NATO member Turkey’s purchase of Moscow’s S-400 missile defense system, which under U.S. law should trigger sanctions.

Turkey is already suspended from the F-35 fighter jet program in which it was both joint producer and customer, and the offensive it launched against Kurdish forces in northeast Syria on Oct. 9 set the stage for further U.S. retaliation.

Although Trump appeared to clear the way for the incursion by withdrawing troops, the White House briefly imposed sanctions before lifting them after a deal to halt the fighting and clear the Kurdish fighters from the border.

Then, two weeks after that deal, the Congressional votes infuriated Turkey once more.

‘POLITICAL TIMING’

Turkey accepts that many Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were killed in clashes with Ottoman forces during World War One, but contests the figures and denies that the killings were orchestrated or constitute genocide.

“They took advantage of the current political climate against Turkey in Washington to pass this resolution,” a source close to the presidency said. Like the other officials, he spoke on condition of anonymity.

Trump has expressed sympathy for Turkey over its purchase of Russian defense systems, blaming his predecessor for not selling Ankara U.S. Patriot missiles. His eagerness to pull U.S. forces out of Syria also aligned with Erdogan’s plan to send troops across the border to drive back the Kurdish YPG.

However, last month Trump threatened to “obliterate” Turkey’s economy, and Trump sent Erdogan a letter on the day the offensive started warning him he could be responsible for “slaughtering thousands of people”.

“Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!” Trump wrote.

A Turkish security official cited Trump’s letter, along with the votes in Congress, as damaging: “If the atmosphere doesn’t change, there won’t be any point to this visit”.

Erdogan himself said three weeks ago he could no longer keep up with Trump’s blizzard of tweets.

Still, for Ankara, Trump remains the best hope of salvaging a partnership between two countries that, despite their difficulties, want to quadruple their annual trade to $100 billion.

“The two leaders have a good relationship,” the source close to the presidency said. “President Trump wants to have good relations with Turkey in spite of his own establishment.”

(Editing by Kevin Liffey)

U.S. forces seen near Turkish border for patrol in northeast Syria: witness, SDF source

U.S. forces seen near Turkish border for patrol in northeast Syria: witness, SDF source
BEIRUT (Reuters) – U.S. forces in armored vehicles were seen on Thursday near the Syria-Turkey border in a part of northeastern Syria where they had not been observed since the United States announced a decision to withdraw from the area, a witness said.

A military source from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) described the movement as a patrol running between the towns of Rmeilan to Qahtaniyah, 20 km (12 miles) to the west. The source said it would “not be a one-time” event.

The head of the SDF’s media office could not immediately be reached for comment. The witness saw the vehicles outside the town of Qahtaniyah, roughly 6 km (4 miles) south of the border.

President Donald Trump announced this month that U.S. forces would withdraw from northeastern Syria, where the United States had allied with the SDF to oust Islamic State forces.

In response to a question about the reported troop movement, Colonel Myles Caggins, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said, “All Coalition military operations are de-conflicted with other forces operating in the region”.

“We have begun repositioning Coalition troops to the Deir al-Zor region, in coordination with our SDF partners, to increase security (and) continue our mission to defeat (Islamic State) remnants,” Caggins added.

The U.S. military said last week it was reinforcing its position in Syria with additional assets, including mechanized forces, to prevent oil fields from being taken over by remnants of the Islamic State militant group or others.

Trump said last week a small number of U.S. troops would remain in the area of Syria “where they have the oil”. Syria’s oil wells are principally located in Deir al-Zor province, well south of the Turkish-Syrian border.

(Reporting by Rodi Said in northeast Syria; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Tom Perry and Will Dunham)

North Korea launches two suspected missiles after warnings to Washington

North Korea launches two suspected missiles after warnings to Washington
By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea fired two suspected missiles into the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan on Thursday, according to military officials in Japan and South Korea, ending nearly a month-long lull in testing after denuclearization talks stalled.

The launches, which Japanese authorities identified as likely ballistic missiles, were the first since one day of talks between the United States and North Korea ended without an agreement on Oct. 5 in Sweden.

American officials have played down previous missile launches this year, saying they were short-range weapons.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has set an end-of-the-year deadline for denuclearization talks with Washington, however, and in a statement on Sunday North Korea said it would be a mistake for the United States to ignore that deadline.

A U.S. State Department spokesman said: “We are aware of reports of a North Korean missile launch. We are continuing to monitor the situation and consulting closely with our allies in Japan and South Korea.”

Analysts said the launches underscore how tense the situation has become after three meetings between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump – unprecedented top-level contact between the countries – failed to lead to any agreement over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

“Make no mistake, if there is no change in the current trajectory of U.S.-North Korea relations there is only one possible outcome: a long-range missile or nuclear weapons test by Pyongyang that will spark a crisis just like in 2017,” said Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington.

TWO PROJECTILES FIRED

The first of two “unidentified projectiles” was fired on Thursday at 4:35 p.m. local time (0735 GMT) from South Phyongan Province, in the center of North Korea, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a series of statements. A second projectile was detected at 4:38 p.m. (0738 GMT).

The projectiles traveled an estimated 370 kilometers (230 miles) and reached an altitude of 90 km (56 miles), the JCS said, calling them “short range”.

“Objects that appeared to be ballistic missiles were launched from North Korea,” Japan’s defense ministry said in a statement. “They did not land within our territory.”

An American air base at Misawa, 1,130 km (700 miles) north of Tokyo, posted a “real world missile alert” and urged personnel to seek shelter, before later issuing an “all clear”.

The afternoon launch timing was a departure from this year’s string of tests, which usually took place around dawn.

On Wednesday, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency cited an unnamed military source as saying that movements of transporter erector launchers (TEL), used to fire missiles, had been detected in North Korea.

South Korea’s National Security Council held an emergency meeting after the launch on Thursday, and expressed its concern about what it called “short-range projectiles”.

“Our military is maintaining a readiness posture while tracking and monitoring related developments in preparation for another launch,” the JCS said in a statement after the launches on Thursday.

The JCS called on North Korea to stop the launches because they were “unhelpful” for reducing tensions on the peninsula.

Kim Dong-yup, a former navy officer who teaches at Seoul’s Kyungnam University, said the launches could be a so-called “running test fire” of a recently developed multiple-rocket system, with the aim of fine-tuning the system for full production.

RISING TENSIONS

The launches occurred on the day that South Korean President Moon Jae-in attended the funeral of his mother, who died on Tuesday.

In a message delivered via the border village of Panmunjom late on Wednesday, North Korean leader Kim had expressed “deep condolences” and “consolation” over Moon’s loss, Moon’s office said on Thursday.

Relations between the two Koreas have cooled since a flurry of personal meetings between Moon and Kim last year, and denuclearization negotiations between North Korea and the United States appear stalled.

On Sunday, North Korea said there had been no progress in North Korea-United States relations.

North Korea has tested several new missile designs this year, including a new submarine-launched ballistic missile fired from a platform in the sea on Oct. 2.

It says the missiles are necessary to defend against new warplanes and weapons acquired by South Korea, including the advanced F-35 stealth fighter jet.

North Korea has also accused the United States and South Korea of continuing hostile policies, including military drills.

On Monday, South Korea began its annual Hoguk military exercises, which it says are for self defense.

North Korean state media, however, strongly criticized the drill as practice for invading the North, and said “South Korean military warmongers are driving the situation into an extreme one.”

Experts have said several of the new missiles tested this year by North Korea are designed to potentially evade missile defense systems deployed in South Korea and Japan.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Joyce Lee, and Josh Smith in Seoul, Ritsuko Ando and Tim Kelly in Tokyo, and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Gerry Doyle, Catherine Evans and Frances Kerry)

U.S. bill would provide Puerto Rico a path to statehood

U.S. bill would provide Puerto Rico a path to statehood
(Reuters) – The question of statehood for Puerto Rico would be put to voters of the U.S. commonwealth for a third time since 2012 under legislation introduced in Congress on Tuesday.

Proponents of the bill said it would provide the island with the same path to statehood taken by Alaska and Hawaii, the last two states admitted to the union.

Under the legislation, which has some bipartisan support, a federally authorized referendum would appear on the Nov. 3, 2020, ballot in Puerto Rico. Approval by a majority of the island’s voters would lead to a presidential proclamation within 30 months making Puerto Rico the 51st state.

President Donald Trump has called Puerto Rico “one of the most corrupt places on earth,” making the bill’s future murky. The island’s non-voting congressional representative, Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, said the measure has 45 sponsors.

The island is still trying to recover from devastating hurricanes that hit in 2017, while it works its way through a bankruptcy process to restructure about $120 billion of debt and pension obligations.

Gonzalez-Colon said the bill provides political equality for Puerto Rico.

“The American citizens of Puerto Rico will have the opportunity to participate in a federally-sponsored vote and be asked the following question: ‘Should Puerto Rico be admitted as a State of the Union, yes or no?’” she said in a statement. “This is similar to what happened in Alaska and Hawaii, which is what ultimately makes this legislation different.”

In a non-binding 2017 referendum https://www.reuters.com/article/us-puertorico-debt-vote/puerto-rico-governor-vows-statehood-push-after-referendum-win-idUSKBN1931NG, 97% of the island’s voters favored statehood, although turnout was just 23% due to a boycott against the vote.

In a 2012 vote, 61% of Puerto Ricans favored statehood over other alternatives. Neither results moved Congress to act on statehood.

Puerto Rico, which has been governed by the United States since 1899, has suffered the effects of unequal treatment under federal law compared with U.S. states, hindering the island’s development and economy, according to the bill.

(Reporting by Karen Pierog in Chicago; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Islamic State silent on Baghdadi death as it searches for successor

Islamic State silent on Baghdadi death as it searches for successor
By Ulf Laessing and Omar Fahmy

CAIRO (Reuters) – Islamic State supporters have responded with silence and disbelief days after the death of their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, suggesting a breakdown in the command structure of the Sunni militant group trying to agree on a successor.

There has been no official statement or mourning on Baghdadi on Islamic State’s (IS) official Telegram channel since U.S. President Donald Trump announced on Sunday his killing at the hands of special operations forces in northwestern Syria.

Its Amaq news agency Telegram has been continuing business as usual, posting since Sunday more than 30 claims of attacks in Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan and Iraq praising its fighters.

There has also been less chatter among jihadist supporters on social media compared to the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011 and other militant leaders.

Analysts said the remains of Islamic State’s leadership were in a state of shock probably trying to keep the group together and agree on a successor before confirming Baghdadi’s killing.

“There is probably right now chaos inside what is left of the leadership. Key aides have been killed and documents destroyed,” said Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi expert on militant groups.

“They will want to agree on a successor before announcing the death,” he said, adding that a split of the group could delay this.

The group might also need to rebrand itself since using Baghdadi’s declared Islamic caliphate was no longer appropriate having lost the swathes of Iraq, Syria and Libya its fighters used to control until 2017, analysts said.

Many of Baghdadi’s followers were also killed, Trump said on Sunday.

On Tuesday, he wrote on Twitter the U.S. military had likely killed the person who likely would have succeeded Baghdadi as Islamic State leader. Trump did not specify who he was referring to, but a senior State Department official on Monday confirmed the killing of Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, Islamic State spokesman and a high-ranking IS figure, in an operation separate from the one that killed Baghdadi.

It took al Qaeda, another Sunni militant group following a similar ideology which carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, several days before it confirmed the killing of Osama bin Laden in a U.S. raid, said Aymenn al-Tamimi, a researcher at Swansea University focused on Islamic State.

About six weeks passed before the group announced a successor to bin Laden.

“Islamic State could announce the death in their weekly news letter which could come out on Thursday if they were able to agree on a successor,” said Tamimi.

He said Hajj Abdullah, a deputy of Baghdadi, was his likely successor, provided he was still alive.

There had been conflicting reports before whether Baghdadi was still alive after the Islamic State lost its last significant territory in Syria in March, resorting since then to hit-and-run guerrilla tactics.

His last audio message was in September.

DEFIANCE

There has been less chatter online among supporters of militant groups compared to times when militants were previously killed.

Social media platforms such as Twitter are now quicker at deleting accounts linked to militants, while several Arab countries have stepped up online surveillance. That forces users to constantly change encrypted accounts.

Of those Islamic State supporters who went online after Trump’s announcement following an initial stunning silence, many voiced disbelief or dismissed the news as fake.

A Telegram account linked to IS warned supporters not to believe an alleged image announcing the death. The message ended with “God almighty preserve him (Baghdadi)”, suggesting the poster still believed Baghdadi was alive.

Other supporters seemed ready to embrace his death, urging supporters to continue the jihadist fight in any case.

“Whatever happens the jihad convoy moves forward and will not stop even if the state is annihilated,” one supporter wrote on a personal Telegram account.

Tamimi said there was not much mourning as many militant supporters were glad to see Baghdadi dead because he had in their view damaged the jihad project by his group’s cruelty by meting out punishments such as amputations of legs and hands.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Sunni group formerly known as the Nusra Front and which dominates Idlib in northwestern Syria where Baghdadi was killed, praised his death.

“The only regret they had was that they hadn’t killed him instead of U.S. forces,” said Tamimi.

In contrast to Islamic State, supporters of al Qaeda quickly accepted Baghdadi’s death, according to the U.S.-based SITE Intel Group which monitors jihadist websites.

“How much blood has been shed in the name of his imaginary Caliphate?” posted Sirajuddin Zurayqat, a former official in a former al Qaeda-linked group, Brigades of Abdullah Azzam, SITE said.

Late on Monday, hardline Saudi Sunni cleric Abdullah al-Muhaysini also published an 18-minute video praising Baghdadi’s death, urging followers to quit IS.

“For some, Baghdadi’s death might be the final straw to quit the group and go back to al Qaeda,” said Elisabeth Kendall, senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic studies at Oxford University.

(Additional reporting by Yousef Saba; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Turkey says Kurdish YPG has not fully withdrawn from Syria border area

Turkey says Kurdish YPG has not fully withdrawn from Syria border area
By Ece Toksabay and Jonathan Spicer

ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Kurdish YPG forces have not fully withdrawn from a strip of northeastern Syria under a Russia-brokered accord that is about to expire, Turkey’s foreign minister said on Monday, as Ankara prepared to discuss its next steps with Moscow.

Turkey began a military offensive in northeastern Syria  targeting the YPG forces on Oct. 9 after President Donald Trump pulled U.S. troops out of the area, setting off a regional power shift that analysts say benefits Moscow and Damascus.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said a Russian delegation was headed to Turkey to discuss joint patrols that could begin as soon as Tuesday.

If the YPG does not fulfill the agreement to pull back more than 30 km (18 miles) from Turkey’s border, Turkish-led forces will “clear these terrorists from here”, he said.

“There are those who have withdrawn. (Syrian) regime elements are confirming this, Russia is confirming this as well. But it is not possible to say all of them have withdrawn,” Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara.

Ankara views the YPG as terrorists because of their links to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey. But the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which include the YPG, have been a important ally of the United States in the fight against Islamic State militants.

On Sunday, the SDF said it had agreed to withdraw from the 30-km border region it had controlled until the U.S. troops pulled out. Russia has moved military personnel and vehicles into the region and has said the peace plan is on track.

Under the deal agreed on Oct. 22 between Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Syrian border guards and Russian military police are supposed to clear the region of YPG fighters over a six-day period that ends late on Tuesday.

Turkish and Russian forces are then meant to start patrolling a section of the Turkish-Syrian border that runs 10 km deep into Syria.

The deal means President Bashar al-Assad’s forces moving back to parts of the northern border with Turkey for the first time in years due to the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011. (For an interactive map see: https://tmsnrt.rs/2M5FcGH)

“Now, a Russian military delegation is coming (to Turkey),” Cavusoglu said. “Our friends will discuss both the latest situation on the issue of withdrawal and at the end of 150 hours (on Tuesday)… how will the patrols be, what we will do together, what steps we will take.”

RUSSIA ‘GATE KEEPER’

The joint patrols are to run from the Euphrates River east to the Iraq border, except for the Kurdish-controlled city of Qamishli, covering a portion of the so-called “safe zone” Turkey originally said it would oversee.

With Ankara and Damascus locked in conflict in Syria’s rebel-controlled Idlib region in the northwest, there could be further risks as Syrian government forces and border guards head to the northeast under the Russia-brokered deal.

On Sunday, Syrian state news agency SANA reported clashes between the Syrian army and Turkish forces near Ras al-Ain, a town on the Turkish border. Turkey has not confirmed those clashes.

“Much of the deal is about coordination but Turkey and Syria are still fighting it out in Idlib, so it’s another potential risk to manage,” said Asli Aydintasbas, an Istanbul-based senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Turkey has access to northern Syria but Russia has limited (Turkish) penetration under the deal,” she added. “So Putin is the gatekeeper and sole decision-maker there, and is also in a position to dictate Syria’s pending constitutional process.”

A committee tasked with mapping out Syria’s postwar political arrangements is scheduled to hold its first meeting in Geneva on Wednesday.

Cavusoglu will meet his Russian and Iranian counterparts in the Swiss city on Tuesday ahead of that meeting, the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen,

(Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Gareth Jones)

Trump says U.S. may release parts of Baghdadi raid video

Trump says U.S. may release parts of Baghdadi raid video
By Steve Holland and Andrew Osborn

WASHINGTON/MOSCOW (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday he may declassify and release part of the video taken on Saturday of the raid in Syria in which Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed.

The video is believed to include aerial footage and possibly footage from cameras mounted on the soldiers who stormed Baghdadi’s compound.

“We’re thinking about it. We may,” Trump told reporters before flying to Chicago. “We may take certain parts of it and release it.”

Trump said on Sunday that Baghdadi had died “whimpering and crying” in a raid by U.S. special forces in Syria, fulfilling his top national security goal.

World leaders welcomed Baghdadi’s death, but said the campaign against Islamic State, a group that carried out atrocities in the name of a fanatical version of Islam, was not over, with so-called lone wolves likely to seek revenge.

Baghdadi, who had led the jihadist group since 2010, killed himself by detonating a suicide vest after fleeing into a dead-end tunnel as U.S. forces closed in, Trump said in a televised address from the White House.

“He was a sick and depraved man and now he’s gone,” said Trump. “He died … whimpering and crying and screaming.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to say if the United States had told Russia about the operation in advance.

But he added: “If this information is confirmed we can talk about a serious contribution by the president of the United States to the fight against international terrorism.”

French President Emmanuel Macron said Baghdadi’s death was a major blow against Islamic State but “the fight continues to finally defeat this terrorist organization”.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “We will work with our coalition partners to bring an end to the murderous, barbaric activities of Daesh (Islamic State) once and for all.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters: “This is a many-headed monster … As you cut one off, another one inevitably arises.”

In Southeast Asia, an important focus for Islamic State, officials said security forces were preparing for a long battle to thwart the group’s ideology.

The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, home to some of Asia’s most organized Islamist militants, said they were braced for retaliation by Islamic State loyalists, including “lone wolf” attacks by radicalized locals.

CAPABLE AND DANGEROUS

Though Baghdadi’s death will unsettle Islamic State, it remains capable and dangerous, said Delfin Lorenzana, defense secretary of the Philippines, where the group’s influence has taken a hold in its troubled Mindanao region.

“This is a blow to the organization considering al-Baghdadi’s stature as a leader. But this is just a momentary setback considering the depth and reach of the organization worldwide,” Lorenzana said. “Somebody will take his place.”

Islamic State has no declared successor as leader. But the group has in the past proved resilient, continuing to mount or inspire attacks in the region and beyond despite losing most of its territory in recent years.

Baghdadi had long been sought by the United States – which offered a $25 million reward – as leader of a jihadist group that at one point controlled large areas of Syria and Iraq, where it declared a caliphate.

Islamic State has brutally attacked religious minorities and launched deadly strikes on five continents in a violent campaign that horrified most Muslims.

In their long hunt for Baghdadi, Iraqi intelligence teams secured a break in February 2018 after one of his top aides gave them information on how he escaped capture for so many years, two Iraqi security officials said.

Baghdadi held strategy talks with his commanders in moving minibuses packed with vegetables in order to avoid detection, Ismael al-Ethawi told officials after he was arrested by Turkish authorities and handed to the Iraqis.

“Ethawi gave valuable information which helped the Iraqi multi-security agencies team complete the missing pieces of the puzzle of Baghdadi’s movements and places he used to hide,” one of the Iraqi security officials said.

Iraqi security officials said Kurdish intelligence agents had exchanged information with counterparts in Baghdad on the movements of Baghdadi and his aides in Syria. One of the Kurds’ sources passed on a “golden tip” earlier this year.

Suspicious movements were spotted by locals at house in a village in Syria, which was placed under surveillance and turned out to be the house used by Baghdadi, the Iraqi officials said.

U.S. PULLBACK

The raid on Baghdadi comes weeks after Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, which permitted Turkey to attack America’s Kurdish allies as it sought to set up a “safe zone”.

Critics expressed concern at the abandoning of the Kurdish fighters who were instrumental in defeating Islamic State in Syria, and said the move might allow the group to regain strength and pose a threat to U.S. interests.

Trump said the raid would not change his decision to withdraw troops from Syria.

But killing Baghdadi could help blunt those concerns, as well as boosting Trump domestically at a time when he is facing an impeachment inquiry in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Regional allies welcomed the operation, with Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan saying it marked “a turning point in our joint fight against terrorism”.

Turkey’s military was in intense coordination with U.S. counterparts on the night of the raid, a presidential spokesman said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praising an “impressive achievement”. Saudi Arabia also offered praise.

Egypt, which is fighting militants loyal to Islamic State, said the killing of Baghdadi is “an important step toward eradicating terrorism”.

U.S. foe Iran, which accuses the United States and its allies of creating Islamic State, was dismissive. Information Minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi, tweeted: “Not a big deal, You just killed your creature”.

NIGHT-TIME RAID

In the hours before Trump’s announcement, sources in the region had described the raid on a compound in the village of Barisha, in Idlib province bordering Turkey, in the early hours of Sunday.

Trump said eight helicopters carried U.S. special forces to Baghdadi’s compound, where they were met with gunfire before blasting their way in.

The president said he watched the operation in the Situation Room of the White House.

At the height of its power, Islamic State ruled over millions of people from northern Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad.

Thousands of civilians were killed by the group as it mounted what the United Nations called a genocidal campaign against Iraq’s Yazidi minority. It also caused worldwide revulsion by beheading foreign nationals from countries including the United States, Britain and Japan.

The group has claimed responsibility for or inspired attacks in cities including Paris, Nice, Orlando, Manchester, London and Berlin, and in Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Khalil Ashawi in Syria, Katanga Johnson in Washington, Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Ahmed Rasheed and Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad, Samia Nakhoul, Ellen Francis and Lisa Barrington in Beirut, Orhan Coskun in Ankara and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul, Mahmoud Mourad in Cairo, and Reuters TV, Writing by Giles Elgood, Editing by William Maclean and Mike Collett-White)

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)

Trump says likely won’t sign China trade deal until he meets with Xi

Trump says likely won’t sign China trade deal until he meets with Xi
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday said he likely would not sign any trade deal with China until he meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the upcoming APEC Forum in Chile.

Trump, speaking to reporters at the White House, said the partial trade deal announced last week was in the process of being formalized.

“It’s being papered,” he said.

Trump, Xi and other heads of state are expected to participate in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum being held in Santiago from Nov. 11 to Nov. 17.

Last week, Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He announced the first phase of a deal to end the trade war between Beijing and Washington but did not offer many details.

China wants more talks as soon as the end of October to hammer out the details of the “phase one” pact, according to a Bloomberg report on Monday that cited people familiar with the matter.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Makini Brice; Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Toby Chopra and Chris Reese)