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Conflicting reports on Syrian military entry into key Kurdish-held town of Manbij

Mattis reportedly signs Syria withdrawal order

Syria's military announced Friday that it entered the flashpoint Kurdish-held town of Manbij, where Turkey has threatened an offensive, and raised the national flag there.

The U.S.-led coalition, however, has denied that there were changes to the military deployment in Manbij, refuting the Syrian government's account that its troops have entered. The coalition called the announcement about government troops "incorrect" and said it "has seen no indication that these claims are true."

U.S. troops have been patrolling the town -- which is held by the U.S-backed Kurdish-led forces -- and have bases on its edge to prevent friction with Turkey-backed fighters.    

"We call on everyone to respect the integrity of Manbij and the safety of its citizens," the coalition added.

A Syrian Kurdish official, meanwhile, said the government troops arrived only at the town's perimeter.   

Turkish soldiers ride a military vehicle at Manbij countryside
Turkish soldiers ride a military vehicle at Manbij countryside, Syria, December 28, 2018. KHALIL ASHAWI/REUTERS

Turkey's president said the facts on the ground in Manbij remain uncertain, calling the government entering the town a "psychological act."

"I spoke with my friends, with intelligence, etc., about an hour ago and there is nothing certain at this moment," Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul. 

A resident of Manbij who spoke to The Associated Press from the town on condition of anonymity said there was no sign of government troops inside the town. 

The conflicting reports around the announcement reflect the chaos that is likely to ensue after President Trump's surprise decision earlier this month to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, as all sides of the conflict scramble to find ways to replace them. 

The U.S. decision would leave areas in east Syria -- around 30 percent of the country's territory -- up for grabs, and it undermines a four-year-old partnership with the Syrian Kurdish fighters.

Days ago, Pentagon spokesman Col. Rob Manning told reporters: "At this time, we continue to work by, with and through our partners in the region." 

Turkey-backed Syrian fighters say their forces are on alert and ready for an offensive in Manbij after Syrian troops announced they entered.