ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened Wednesday to step up his intervention in the conflict along his country's border with Syria, insisting he was determined to oust Syrian Kurdish forces gathering in the region.
In a speech delivered to a group of village and district administrators, Erdogan said Turkey was mulling the possibility of further involvement to clear the Kurdish-held border area of Afrin in northern Syria, stretching between the Turkish towns of Kilis and Kirikhan.
"We are putting it (possible intervention) on our agenda ... to remove the threat against our country coming from the region between Kilis and Kirikhan, to clear this region from the terrorists," Erdogan said.
The comments are important because Turkey's conflict with the Syrian Kurdish militia has put it at odds with the United States, which has relied heavily on the group in its fight against the Islamic State group.
Erdogan also said Turkey could soon launch an assault to force Syrian Kurdish fighters out of the town of Manbij in northern Syria.
The Syrian Kurdish forces expelled Islamic State fighters from the border town this summer but Turkey considers the group — which is affiliated with its own outlawed Kurdish rebels — as a terror organization. It wants its fighters to withdraw to positions east of the Euphrates river.
"They will leave (Manbij). They will to go east of the Euphrates river. If not, we will do what is needed," Erdogan said.
The Turkish military, which is supporting Syrian opposition forces in their push to clear a border area of IS, has also attacked the Syrian Kurdish fighters, including with airstrikes.
The United States regards the Syrian Kurdish fighters as the most effective group in the fight against IS.
"I have told our American friends we do not need (the Syrian Kurdish groups) to fight Daesh," he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
Meanwhile in Turkey, police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse demonstrators protesting the detentions of two leading politicians in the largest city in the country's mainly Kurdish southeast.
Hundreds gathered outside the Diyarbakir municipality to demand the release of mayor Gultan Kisanak and co-mayor Firat Anli, who were taken into custody late Tuesday as part of a terrorism investigation.
Kisanak, Diyarbakir's first female mayor, and Anli are members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, or HDP, and were elected in the 2014 local elections. Their detentions come amid a growing crackdown on the political party, which the government accuses of being a political wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.
The PKK has waged a three-decade long insurgency against the Turkish state and is considered a terror organization by Turkey and its allies. The party denies the accusation.
The conflict between Turkey and the PKK has claimed an estimated 40,000 lives since 1984. Since the collapse of a ceasefire in 2015, at least 600 state security personnel and thousands of Kurdish militants have been killed, according to Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency.
In September, the government ousted 24 municipal and district mayors from their elected posts for alleged connections to the outlawed PKK and appointed trustees in their stead. Several HDP legislators, including the party's leaders, face prosecution for alleged ties to the PKK.
The two politicians were detained for questioning as part of a probe into the PKK, the Anadolu news agency reported. A statement from the Diyarbakir prosecutor's office said the two were being investigated for "speaking positively about the terror organization", "calling for autonomy" and allowing the use of municipality vehicles for Kurdish militants' funerals.
Turkey declared a state of emergency following the failed coup in July, allowing the government to rule by decrees and authorities to detain suspects for up to 30 days as well as restrict access to lawyers in the first five days of detention.
Earlier Wednesday, top European Union officials voiced concern over the detentions, calling on Turkey to respect the rule of law even as it deals with the security threat posed by Kurdish militants.
Associated Press writers Zeynep Bilginsoy and Bulut Emiroglu contributed from Istanbul and Mucahit Ceylan from Diyarbakir.