MOSCOW   -   Russia’s defence ministry on Saturday attacked US plans to maintain and boost the American military presence in eastern Syria as “international state banditry” motivated by a desire to protect oil smugglers and not by real security concerns.

US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said on Friday Washington would send armoured vehicles and troops to the Syrian oil fields in order to prevent them from falling into the hands of Islamic State militants.

His comments came after President Donald Trump earlier this month pulled some 1,000 US military personnel out of northeast Syria, a move that prompted Turkey to launch a cross-border incursion targeting the Kurdish YPG militia, a former US ally against Islamic State.

Trump’s decision drew an angry backlash from Congress, including key Republicans who saw the pullout as a betrayal of the Kurds and a move that could bolster Islamic State. In a statement, Russia’s defence ministry said Washington had no mandate under international or US law to increase its military presence in Syria and said its plan was not motivated by genuine security concerns in the region.

“Therefore Washington’s current actions - capturing and maintaining military control over oil fields in eastern Syria - is, simply put, international state banditry,” it said. US troops and private security companies in eastern Syria are protecting oil smugglers who make more than $30 million a month, the statement said.

Turkey will clear the Kurdish YPG militia from its border area with northeast Syria if Russia does not fulfil its obligations under a bilateral accord clinched this week, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said.

Under the deal hammered out by Erdogan and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, Russian military police and Syrian border guards are meant to clear the YPG fighters from within 30 km (19 miles) of the border.

Erdogan also repeated a previous threat to “open the gates” for refugees to head to Europe if European countries did not support Ankara’s plans for a “safe zone” in northeast Syria where he wants to resettle the refugees currently residing in Turkey.

Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar Assad and has helped him turn the tide of a bloody civil war, has long insisted that the US military presence in Syria is illegal.

Moscow has further bolstered its position in Syria following the US withdrawal from the northeast of the country, negotiating a deal this week with Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan to help remove the Kurdish YPG militia from within a 30 km (19 mile) strip along the Syrian-Turkish border.

Turkey will not tolerate any human rights violations in northeast Syria, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Saturday, as a ceasefire holds in a border area where Ankara sent in troops this month targeting Kurdish YPG militia.

Cavusoglu, speaking at a joint news conference with his German counterpart Heiko Maas, said Turkey was providing humanitarian aid to civilians in the area but said a German proposal for an international safe zone was “unrealistic”.

“We will investigate to the very end even the smallest bit of violation (of human rights) and complaint. We won’t tolerate even the least violation of human rights violations,” Cavusoglu said.

Turkey launched its cross-border offensive on Oct. 9 after US President Donald Trump pulled out around 1,000 American troops who had been in the area to help their Kurdish allies combat Islamic State militants.

Ankara regards the YPG as terrorists linked to Kurdish insurgents operating in southeast Turkey. Turkey halted its military offensive last week under a US-brokered ceasefire.