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Syrian Kurds clear mines after taking town, dam from IS

14 May 2017

Turkey slammed the Trump administration's decision to supply Syrian Kurdish fighters with weapons against the Islamic State group and demanded Wednesday that it be reversed, heightening tensions between the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies days before the Turkish leader heads to Washington for a meeting with President Donald Trump.

The broadcaster said that the fighting between the SDF and the Islamic State in Tabqa had been happening for weeks. But the Kurdish YPG, which forms the backbone of the group, is linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which Turkey, the US and other Western nations view as a terrorist group.

The YPG has been in the lead as the SDF presses on Raqqa, the so-called capital of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in northeastern Syria, but Erdogan said, "We want to know that our allies will side with us and not with terror organizations".

But the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, of SDF, which has driven IS from much of northern Syria over the past two years with the help of US -led airstrikes, are among the most effective ground forces battling the extremists.

The US military command in the Middle East, Centcom, confirmed the liberation of Tabqa, situated on the Euphrates River about 55 kilometres upstream from Raqqa.

The media office of the Syrian Democratic Forces said Thursday a special operation was underway to de-mine the dam and the surrounding area. Concerns were raised earlier this year that the dam could be damaged in the fighting or degraded by lack of maintenance, or that the extremists might sabotage it to flood the surrounding areas.

"Every single one" of the weapons will be accounted for, and the USA will "assure they are pointed at ISIS", Dorrian said, using an alternate acronym for IS.

Turkey's top officials have sharply criticised a decision by the United States to arm Kurdish fighters battling ISIL (also known as ISIS) in Syria - with Washington responding that it will address Ankara's security concerns.

The issue is set to dominate talks between Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his American counterpart Donald Trump next week, the first meeting between the two heads of state.

A first consignment of US weapons is already in place for delivery and could be dispatched to the Kurds "very quickly", US Colonel John Dorrian said Wednesday.

He called on Turkey to let go of its "unjustified" fears of the group.

Khalil dismissed the label, saying the USA would not supply arms to terrorists.

The successful recapture of Tabqah, located roughly 30 miles west of ISIS stronghold Raqqa, denies the terrorists "a key coordination hub" that had been used by the group since 2013 to plan attacks on the West. Tabqah served as a base for planning such attacks after ISIS lost other territories in northern Syria. "Daesh will be fighting back here, that is why we need heavy weapons, including tanks, howitzers, missiles and other hardware", Yunus said. The move allowed for the dismantling of land mines around the dam. Dorrian said the priority now is to protect those who remain.

Ankara views the YPG as the Syrian extension of the PKK militant group, which is labeled a terrorist organization by both Ankara and Washington.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced that Trump had authorized the arming and equipping of "Kurdish elements" of the SDF "to ensure a clear victory" in Raqqa.