Turkish-backed rebels clear ISIS from Turkey's Syrian border

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Turkey Tanks Target IS in Syria

ISTANBUL/ANKARA, Sept 4 (Reuters) - Turkish-backed rebels on Sunday cleared Islamic State from Turkey's Syrian border, securing a 90 km (55 miles) corridor and marking a substantial gain in Ankara's plan to drive out Sunni militants and stop the advance of Syrian Kurdish fighters.

The rebels, mainly Syrian Arabs and Turkmen fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, took charge of the frontier between Azaz and Jarablus after seizing 20 villages from the Sunni hardline group, the Turkish military said in a statement.

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That puts Turkey in firm control of a stretch of land it sees as a bulwark against the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG militia. However, that could sharpen tensions with the United States over Syria policy.

Turkey is fighting a three-decade-old Kurdish insurgency in its southeast and fears that gains by the Syrian Kurdish YPG will embolden militants at home. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

"We are there to protect our border, to provide for our citizens safety of life and property, and to ensure Syria's integrity," Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said in a speech on Sunday, discussing the incursion, which Ankara calls Euphrates Shield.

"We will never allow the formation of an artificial state in the north of Syria," he told a crowd in Diyarbakir, the largest city in the mainly Kurdish southeast.

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Blindfolds are pictured inside a prison, which according to Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters belonged to Islamic State militants, in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
A view shows part of a media centre that belonged to Islamic State militants inside an ancient Hammam in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 16, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
Explosives left behind by Islamic State militants are seen at a school, following clashes in Falluja, Iraq, June 25, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Burnt out prison cells belonging to Islamic State militants are seen in Falluja after government forces recaptured the city from Islamic State militants, Iraq, June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An Islamic State flag hangs on the wall of an abandoned building in Tel Hamis in Hasaka countryside after the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) took control of the area March 1, 2015. Kurdish forces dealt a blow to Islamic State by capturing Tel Hamis, an important town, on Friday in the latest stage of a powerful offensive in northeast Syria, a Kurdish militia spokesman said. The capture of Tel Hamis was announced by the Kurdish YPG militia and confirmed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the country's civil war. REUTERS/Rodi Said (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT)
A book belonging to Islamic State militants is seen in Falluja after government forces recaptured the city from Islamic State militants, Iraq, June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A view shows containers, which according to Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters were used for making explosives by Islamic State militants, in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
Handcuffs are pictured inside a prison, which according to Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters belonged to Islamic State militants, in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters inspect bags of niqabs at a centre that was used by Islamic State religious police (al-Hisbah) in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 16, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
Tripods and a projector are pictured inside an ancient Hammam that was used by Islamic State militants as a media centre in Manbij, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 16, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
A view shows car parts, which according to Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters were used by Islamic State militants to prepare car bombs, at a workshop in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
A factory abandoned by Islamic State militants is seen in Falluja, Iraq, June 25, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A billboard (L) with Koranic verses is seen in the historic city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki SEARCH "PALMYRA SANADIKI" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES
Rocket-propelled grenades left behind by Islamic State militants are seen at a school, following clashes in Falluja, Iraq, June 25, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter inspects a room, which according to the SDF was used by Islamic State militants to prepare explosives, in Manbij, Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 17, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said
A tunnel used by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Sinjar, Iraq December 1, 2015. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
A member of the Iraqi counterterrorism forces stands by an Islamic State militants weapons factory in Falluja, Iraq, June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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The advance took place little more than a week after Turkey launched the Syrian incursion, deploying tanks and air power to support the rebels, who swept into the border town of Jarablus.

On Saturday, Turkey and its rebel allies opened a new line of attack in northern Syria, rolling across the border some 55 km (34 miles) west of Jarablus.

The United States had said on Saturday it some Islamic State targets in the region, but it did not say where.

While the United States and Europe also regard the PKK as a terrorist group, Washington sees the YPG as a separate entity and an effective client in the fight against Islamic State in Syria. That position has caused friction with Turkey, a NATO member and a partner in anti-IS coalition.

'TERROR CORRIDOR'

President Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday raised concern about the formation of a "terror corridor" along Turkey's Syrian border.

Speaking to reporters after a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the G20 gathering of world leaders in China, Erdogan said: "It is our wish that a terror corridor not be formed across our southern border."

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U.S. President Barack Obama arrives at Hangzhou Xiaoshan international airport before the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China September 3, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives to attend the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, September 4, 2016. REUTERS/Rolex dela Pena/Pool
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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (R), his wife Sophie Gregoire and their daughter Ella-Grace arrive at the Hangzhou Xiaoshan international airport before the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, September 3, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
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South Korean President Park Geun-Hye arrives to attend the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, September 4, 2016. REUTERS/Rolex dela Pena/Pool
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to attend the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, September 4, 2016. REUTERS/Rolex dela Pena/Pool
German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives to attend the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, September 4, 2016. REUTERS/Rolex dela Pena/Pool
French President Francois Hollande arrives at Hangzhou Xiaoshan international airport before the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, September 4, 2016. REUTERS/Chance Chan
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi steps out of the plane as he arrives at the Hangzhou Xiaoshan international airport before the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China September 3, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan (R) arrives at the Hangzhou Exhibition Center to participate to G20 Summit, in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, September 4, 2016. REUTERS/Etienne Oliveau/Pool
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong arrives to attend the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, September 4, 2016. REUTERS/Rolex dela Pena/Pool
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy arrives to attend the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, September 4, 2016. REUTERS/Rolex dela Pena/Pool
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Erdogan has repeatedly said that Turkey's allies should not be making a distinction between Islamic State and the YPG as both groups pose a threat to Turkey.

Some Kurds have criticized Turkey for its role in Syria. A demonstration broke out along the Syrian border on Friday, where Turkey is building a concrete wall. Police used tear gas and water cannon to drive the protesters back.

At a rally in Istanbul on Sunday, the co-head of Turkey's Kurdish-rooted Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) denounced the incursion into Syria as an "invasion."

"The government, which says it wants to stop ISIS (Islamic State) with the Jarablus invasion, has no credibility. The invasion of Jarablus is totally an adversarial approach against Kurds and we will never accept it," Selahattin Demirtas told reporters.

Separately, Anadolu said Turkish warplanes hit four Islamic State positions on Saturday evening in Syria's northwestern Aleppo province as part of the operation, citing security sources.

The warplanes hit three targets in the al-Kaldi area and another in the Wuguf region, Anadolu said, citing the sources. (Additional reporting by Melih Aslan, Bulent Usta and Hamdi Istanbullu; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Louise Heavens and Raissa Kasolowsky)

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