Syrian Kurds flee to Turkey as Islamic State advances
Tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds crossed into Turkey Friday, fearing an imminent attack on the town of Ayn al-Arab. The border town is considered necessary for the militants to consolidate their gains across northern Syria.
Suruc, Turkey — Tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds have crossed into Turkey in the past 24 hours, fleeing an advance by Islamic State fighters who have seized dozens of villages close to the border and are advancing on a Syrian town.
Turkey opened a stretch of the frontier on Friday after Kurdish civilians fled their homes, fearing an imminent attack on the town of Ayn al-Arab. Islamic State is now within 9 miles of the town, also known as Kobani, according to a Kurdish commander on the ground.
Islamic State's advances in northern Syria have prompted calls for help by the region's Kurds who fear a massacre in Kobani. The town sits in a strategic position on the border and has prevented the radical Sunni Muslim militants from consolidating their gains across northern Syria.
"Clashes started in the morning and we fled by car. We were 30 families in total," said Lokman Isa, 34, a farmer who had crossed into Turkey.
He said Islamic State fighters entered his village, Celebi, with heavy weapons and the Kurdish forces battling them only had light arms.
"They have destroyed every place they have gone to. We saw what they did in Iraq in Sinjar and we fled in fear," he told Reuters in the Turkish town of Suruc.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told CNN Turk television on Saturday that 45,000 Syrian Kurds had crossed a 30-km section of the border since Turkish authorities opened it on Friday.
Kurdish forces have evacuated at least 100 villages on the Syrian side since the Islamic State onslaught started on Tuesday and have abandoned control of scores as the militant group gained ground.
"Islamic State sees Kobani like a lump in the body, they think it is in their way," said Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors Syria's civil war.
More than 300 Kurdish fighters crossed into Syria from Turkey late on Friday to help push back Islamic State's advance, he said, adding it was not clear which group the fighters belonged to.
Esmat al-Sheik, head of Kurdish forces defending the town, said clashes were taking place to the north and east on Saturday.
Islamic State fighters using rockets, artillery, tanks and armored vehicles had advanced further towards Kobani overnight and were now within 15 km, he told Reuters by telephone.
At least 18 Islamic State fighters were killed in clashes with Syrian Kurds overnight as the militant group took control of more villages around the town, according to the Observatory.
Islamic State took full control of about 30 villages near Kobani which had been abandoned by Kurdish forces late on Friday, Abdulrahman said. Another 30 villages were under fire, he said.
Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani called on Friday for international intervention to protect Kobani from the Islamic State advance, saying the insurgents must be "hit and destroyed wherever they are."
The United States is drawing up plans for military action in Syria against Islamic State which has seized swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, proclaiming a caliphate in the heart of the Middle East.
Western states have increased contact with the main Syrian Kurdish political party, the PYD, whose armed wing is the YPG, since Islamic State led a lightning advance in Iraq in June.
The YPG says it has 50,000 fighters and should be a natural partner in a coalition the United States is trying to assemble to fight Islamic State.
But such cooperation could prove difficult because of Syrian Kurds' ties to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a group listed as a terrorist organization by many Western states due to the militant campaign it has waged for Kurdish rights in Turkey.
The PKK on Thursday called on the youth of Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast to join the fight against Islamic State.
Additional reporting by Asli Kandemir in Istanbul and Sylvia Westall in Beirut,; Writing by Nick Tattersall and Sylvia Westall; Editing by Janet Lawrence