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Members of the Free police attend a ceremony celebrating the inauguration of the "Free Police" in the Syrian border town of Jarablus January 24, 2017. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi


By Khalil Ashawi

JARABLUS, Syria (Reuters) - A new Syrian police force trained and equipped by Turkey started work in a rebel-held border town on Tuesday, a sign of deepening Turkish influence in northern Syria, where it has helped drive out Islamic State militants in recent months.

Casually referred to as the "Free Police", in reference to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) alliance of moderate rebel groups which Turkey backed in its campaign against Islamic State along the Turkish border, many of the first 450 recruits are former rebel fighters.

The new, armed security force is made up of regular police and special forces, who wear distinctive light blue berets. They are Syrians, but received five weeks of training in Turkey. Some wore a Turkish flag patch on their uniforms at the inauguration ceremony on Tuesday.

It operates out of a newly opened police station in the Syrian border town of Jarablus but hopes to expand into other areas freed from Islamic State militants by Turkey-backed rebels, officials said.

FSA fighters took Jarablus from Islamic State in August, the first town to fall to Turkey's "Operation Euphrates Shield". That operation has steadily ousted the jihadists from the Syria-Turkish border, while also preventing Kurdish militias gaining ground in their wake.

Turkey-backed rebels now control a more than 100-km stretch along the Syria-Turkish border.

Turkey has long supported rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a complex, multi-faceted conflict. The war has divided Syria into a patchwork of areas controlled by Kurdish militias, Islamic State and various rebel groups.

The Police and National Security Force is a sign of a deepening Turkish influence in north Syria, with the new police cars and station having both Turkish and Arabic writing on them.

"Our mission is to maintain security and preserve property and to serve civilians in the areas liberated (from Islamic State)," police force head General Abd al-Razaq Aslan told Reuters.

Aslan said Turkey had provided material and logistical support that would make the new security forces highly effective.

The opening ceremony was attended by the governor of Gaziantep, a Turkish city near the border. It has become a hub for opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the nearly six-year conflict.

Governor Ali Yerlikaya said Turkey will continue to support areas taken from Islamic State militarily and by providing other services.

(Writing by Lisa Barrington in Beirut, reporting by Khalil Ashawi in Jarabus, northern Syria, editing by Larry King)

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