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ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish military preparations in northwest Syria are legitimate measures against a threat from Kurdish forces in the Afrin region, and Turkey will retaliate against any hostile move, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told Reuters on Wednesday.
Kurtulmus was responding to the head of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, who told Reuters that Turkish military deployments near Kurdish-held areas of northwestern Syria were a declaration of war which could trigger clashes within days.
The YPG forms a major part of the U.S.-backed campaign to capture Islamic State's stronghold of Raqqa. It also controls a pocket of territory in Afrin, about 200 km (125 miles) west of Raqqa. Tensions between Turkish forces and the YPG have been mounting in the Afrin region in recent weeks.
"This is not a declaration of war. We are making preparations against potential threats," Kurtulmus said in an interview. "It's ... a legitimate measure so that we can protect our independence. We cannot remain silent against those sending missiles from Afrin."
Turkey's military, which launched an incursion last August into part of northern Syria which lies between Afrin and a larger Kurdish-controlled area further east, has said that it has returned fire against members of YPG militia near Afrin several times in the last few weeks.
"Their (YPG) primary goal is a threat to Turkey, and if Turkey sees a YPG movement in northern Syria that is a threat to it, it will retaliate in kind," Kurtulmus said.
"This isn't a fantasy for us...it is an indispensible approach to protect Turkey's border security."
Ankara considers the YPG an extension of the outlawed Kurdish PKK group which has waged an insurgency in southeast Turkey since the 1980s. Turkey was angered by a U.S. decision to arm the YPG as it marched with it allies on Raqqa.
The Turkish defence ministry said last month the Pentagon had sought to give assurances that Washington would retrieve weapons provided to the YPG after Islamic State fighters were defeated. Turkey says that is not credible.
"There has never been an incident where a group in the Middle East has been armed, and they returned the weapons," Kurtulmus said. The United States "have formed more than a terrorist organisation there, they formed a small-scale army."
He also warned the YPG not to try to drive out Arab or Turkmen residents from the town of Tel Rifaat, which is close to Afrin and controlled by YPG and Arab allies in the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
"The majority of Tel Rifaat is Arab and Turkmen, and if the PYD says it will capitalise on (its control), then this means ethnic cleansing, and this will not benefit Syria," he said.
Reporting by Dominic Evans, Orhan Coskun and Ercan Gurces; editing by Philippa Fletcher