A group of 292 Syrians went back to the Syrian town of Jarablus from Turkey on Wednesday, in the first wave of formal civilian resettlement since the launch of an Ankara-backed incursion into northern Syria two weeks ago.
Jarablus, which had been held by Islamic State, was the first town captured by Turkey’s army and its Syrian rebel allies in an offensive launched on Aug. 24 that aims to sweep away ISIS militants and Syrian Kurdish militias from the frontier.
Turkey has said it cleared militants from a 90-km (56-mile) stretch of Syrian territory and has pushed south. It has also said it would support any U.S. initiative to strike Islamic State’s stronghold of Raqqa, further to the southeast.
The group of civilians, including women and children, arrived at a sports complex in the Turkish border town of Karkamis for registration early on Wednesday, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu agency said.
After the registration process, they went through security checks before crossing into Syria through the border gate at Karkamis, the agency said.
Huseyin Rustem, a Syrian refugee who had been living in Turkey’s southeastern Gaziantep province for more than a year, said he was “excited to go home.
“My home is now cleansed from terror, that’s why I am going back,” he told reporters in Karkamis before his departure for Jarablus.
“I missed my parents. My whole family is still there. I was all alone here.”
“Turkey has supported us in every way until now, and has now saved our homeland,” said Fatima Mahmud, a mother who was among the group, told the Turkish newspaper Milliyet.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on Wednesday, a senior Turkish government official said that “Syrians will continue to return to their country”.
A spokesman at the governor’s office for Gaziantep province, which lies across the border from Jarablus, also confirmed the civilians’ departure.
“The formal returns have begun today,” the spokesman told Reuters news agency. “This is the first time since the operation began.”
He said there were 292 people in the first group of registered returnees, including women, children and the elderly. More would be allowed to return but only gradually, he added.
To encourage returnees, Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli said Turkey would supply mains power to Jarablus on Saturday, followed by water supplies two days later. Power supplies across Syria have been severely disrupted by the war.
Saif Abu Bakr, general commander of the Hamza Division, a rebel faction affiliated with the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters, told Al Jazeera that “approximately 250 to 300 civilians, including men women and children, were transported back across the border” at about 5pm local time.
“They were all originally from Jarablus,” he said, adding that all the returnees wanted to go back home
“There was no pressure from the Turkish side,” Bakr said from Jarablus. “They asked to go back to their homes.”
Bakr said that all families from Jarablus, approximately 10,000 civilians, were now expected to be brought back to their hometown in the near future.