BEIRUT (AP) — Tens of thousands of displaced Syrians and refugees have returned to an area controlled by Turkey and Turkish-backed opposition fighters in northern Syria, Turkey's foreign minister said Saturday, and U.S.-backed Kurdish-led fighters pressed their offensive in the north near a town held by the Islamic State group.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu's comments came three days after Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Turkey's Operation Euphrates Shield that began in August had ended after its troops and allied rebels secured territory along the border between Turkey and Syria.
Cavusoglu said some 50,000 people have returned from Turkey to areas that have been captured by Turkish troops and Turkey-backed opposition fighters, adding that security in these areas should eventually be handed to local forces.
"People started returning to these places," Cavusoglu said during a visit to the coastal city of Izmir in western Turkey. "Our soldiers are still there and we need to conduct the work there. We need to establish a terror-free zone."
"The necessary work needs to be done for security to be handed over to local forces. We are continuing our work, including train and equip," he added.
Turkey sent ground troops into northern Syria in August to support Turkey backed Syrian opposition forces in clearing a border area of Islamic State group militants and to curb Kurdish territorial expansion. Since then dozens of Turkish soldiers have been killed most of them in an around the northern town of al-Bab that was once and IS stronghold.
Nearby in northern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces tried under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition to besiege the IS stronghold of Tabqa. The city is about 60 kilometers (37 miles) west of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State group.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said IS detonated two vehicles rigged with explosives during the fighting, adding that SDF fighters are now trying to capture the Safsafeh area, which would put Tabqa under total siege. SDF fighters captured an air base from IS outside Tabqa earlier this week.
The SDF said in a statement that its fighters repelled an IS counteroffensive northwest of the city, killing and wounding a number of extremists.
Meanwhile, in central Syria, hundreds of opposition fighters and their families left the city of Homs after being evacuated from the last rebel-held neighborhood of al-Waer.
State news agency SANA said 1,860 people, including 531 fighters, left al-Waer toward the country's north in the third evacuation from the district in two weeks. More evacuations were scheduled for the coming weeks.
State TV showed gunmen, some of them wearing masks, as they boarded buses in the city while carrying automatic rifles. The deal to evacuate al-Waer was brokered by Russia, and Russian troops were seen in the city observing the evacuation.
Unlike the previous two evacuations, in which the fighters and their families headed to the town of Jarblous on the border with Turkey, Saturday's evacuees headed toward the rebel-held province of Idlib.
Opposition activists have criticized the agreement, saying it aims to displace 12,000 al-Waer residents, including 2,500 fighters. The Observatory has called the evacuees "internally displaced" people.
The government has rejected allegations that the Homs deal and similar agreements in other besieged areas amount to the forced displacement of civilians.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus and Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed to this report.