The Syrian army has deployed forces near Manbij in northern Syria, a war monitor and a US official say, after the Kurdish YPG militia urged Damascus to protect the town, where US forces operate, from the threat of a Turkish offensive.
Manbij, which US-backed forces captured from Islamic State in 2016, has emerged as a focal point of new tensions after US President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw US forces whose presence has effectively deterred Turkey.
After a Syrian army announcement on Friday declaring government troops had entered Manbij, Turkey-backed Syrian rebels stationed in nearby territory said they had begun moving together with Turkish forces towards the town in readiness for "the start of military operations to liberate" it.
A witness said convoys of Turkey-backed insurgents, with armoured vehicles and machine guns, were moving towards the front line with the town.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said the Syrian government forces had entered a strip of territory at the edge of Manbij, not inside the town itself, creating a barrier with Turkey-backed fighters nearby.
Manbij, where US troops have a military base, is held by a local militia allied to the YPG which Turkey deems a terrorist group and a security threat.
A US official told Reuters that US troops had not changed their positions in Manbij and dozens still remained. The official said they had not seen Syrian military forces inside Manbij but rather on the outskirts of the city.
The US-led coalition against IS said that "despite incorrect information about changes to military forces in the city of Manbij, Syria, (the coalition) has seen no indication that these claims are true".
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who has vowed to crush the YPG, said Turkish officials would visit Russia - Assad's most powerful ally - on Saturday and discuss Syria. He indicated Turkey was not in a hurry to launch an offensive.
Trump's abrupt decision to withdraw troops from Syria has alarmed the Kurdish-led fighters who have fought IS alongside them for years.
Kurdish leaders are scrambling for a strategy to protect their region stretching across the north and east, where the presence of about 2000 US troops has so far deterred Turkey.
A deployment of Syrian government forces, backed by Russia, would complicate any offensive by Turkey and its Syrian rebel proxies.
The YPG said on Friday its fighters had withdrawn from Manbij before to fight IS elsewhere.
"We invite the Syrian government, to which we belong, as people, land and borders, to send its armed forces to take over these positions and protect Manbij in the face of Turkish threats," it said.wn.
Australian Associated Press