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Turkey issues arrest warrants for Syrian Kurdish leader

Associated Press Associated Press 22/11/2016 By SUZAN FRASER and SARAH EL DEEB, Associated Press

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish authorities on Tuesday issued an arrest warrant for the leader of a U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish group while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan renewed a threat to oust Syrian Kurds from a key town in northern Syria.

Prosecutors in Ankara demanded the arrest of 48 Kurdish militants and leaders, including Saleh Muslim, who heads the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency. The warrants were issued in connection to a suicide bomb attack in February in Ankara, which killed 29 people and was claimed by a Kurdish militant group linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.

Turkey considers the PYD and its armed wing, known as the YPG, as the extension of the PKK in Syria. All three are designated as terror organizations.

In August, Ankara sent ground troops into northern Syria to support Syrian opposition forces clearing a border area of Islamic State group militants and to curb the PYD and YPG's territorial expansion.

On Tuesday, Erdogan reiterated that the Turkish-backed fighters were close to capturing the key town of al-Bab from the IS group. Once that is achieved, Erdogan said, the troops would head toward the town of Manbij, currently held by the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces.

The Kurdish forces drove IS from Manbij earlier this year, but Turkey says it was promised that they would leave after the town's capture and retreat east of the Euphrates river.

"Why will we go to Manbij? Not because we are wild about the place but because the PYD and YPG are there," Erdogan said. "They say a number of them have left. But we want the place to be totally emptied of the PYD and YPG."

The prosecutors issued the arrest warrants, arguing that the attack which targeted buses carrying military personnel in Ankara was ordered by PKK leaders, including two who are in exile in Europe and two who are believed to be in northern Iraq. Saleh Muslim's alleged role in the attack was not clear.

The PKK leaders are already wanted in Turkey but it was the first known warrant for Muslim, who visited Turkey in 2014 and met with Turkish officials.

Muslim said the arrest warrants against him and other Kurdish leaders were related to the advances of the Syrian Kurdish forces, backed by the U.S.-led coalition, against IS militants in their Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, repeating a longstanding Kurdish accusation that Ankara supports extremist Islamist groups including IS. He also accused the Turkish government of reacting to the Kurdish forces' expansion in northern Syria, progress that has boosted Kurdish self-administration plans there.

"Everyone knows that there is no law or courts or democracy or institutions that follow the law in Turkey. There is a sultan who issues orders. No one will take that seriously," Muslim told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Europe. "Today, there is no law in Turkey and the parliament can't carry out its duties."

Muslim also dismissed the Turkish threat against al-Bab and Manbij, saying it would raise tension with Russia, which supports the Syrian government, and would face resistance from Kurdish forces.

"This will face stiff resistance," Muslim said.

However, Ilham Ahmed, the leader of the U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Forces' political arm, said Ankara was seeking a confrontation with the U.S.-led coalition that backs the SDF, and of which Turkey is a member.

"These threats are serious, and he intends to storm Manbij," she told AP in a series of text messages. "We consider this to be opening a battlefront against the coalition forces."

U.S. officials said last week that the YPG had pulled out of Manbij.

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El Deeb reported from Beirut.

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