Syrian Kurds battle Islamic State for town at Turkish border

The attack, backed by US-led air strikes, has angered Turkey. 

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
A Turkish soldier offered water to a Syrian refugee child after crossing into Turkey from Syria. Thousands of Syrians crossed over into Turkey on Sunday as Syrian Kurdish fighters closed in on the outskirts of a strategic Islamic State-held town on the Turkish border.

Kurdish-led militia fought Islamic State near a Syrian town at the Turkish border on Sunday, a monitor and a Kurdish official said, battling to seize it with the help of US-led air strikes in an advance that has worried Turkey.

Concerned about an expansion of Kurdish sway in Syria, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan reiterated his assessment that Kurdish groups were taking over areas evacuated by Arabs and Turkmen, saying that might eventually threaten Turkey's borders.

The YPG, working with the US-led alliance and small Syrian rebel groups, has pushed into Islamic State's Syrian stronghold of Raqqa province, threatening one of its supply lines to the jihadists' de facto capital, Raqqa city.

While dealing a blow to Islamic State, seizing Tel Abyad would help the YPG to link up Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria. Turkey is worried about the risk of separatist sentiment among its own Kurdish minority in the southwest.

At least 13,000 people have fled into Turkey to escape the fighting near Tel Abyad. A security source in Turkey said around 2,000 people were waiting on the Syrian side of the border to cross but were not allowed to enter for now.

YPG fighters were battling Islamic State militants at the eastern outskirts of Tel Abyad on Sunday, YPG spokesman Redur Xeili told Reuters. Coordination with the US-led alliance was "excellent" with air strikes conducted according to need.

"The road connecting Tel Abyad and Raqqa city is in our firing range," he added.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the conflict, said there were only around 150 Islamic State fighters in Tel Abyad.

An activist group, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, said on its Twitter feed that Islamic State had stripped a Tel Abyad hospital of all its equipment and had moved it to Raqqa city. It also said fighters were ordering people away from the border area.

The security source in Turkey said: "[Islamic State] doesn't want people to flee. They are telling them the coalition forces would bomb the town if the civilians left."

ERDOGAN SEES POSSIBLE BORDER THREAT

The YPG has emerged as the main partner on the ground in Syria for the US-led alliance that has been bombing Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Its advance into Raqqa province follows a campaign that drove Islamic State from wide areas of neighboring Hasaka province.

Turkey views the YPG as part of the PKK, which has fought a decades-long insurgency against Ankara and is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

Erdogan, in comments published on Sunday, reiterated his view that Arabs and Turkmen were being targeted by the advance.

Kurdish groups were "being placed into regions that they are evacuating. This is not a good sign. Because it means paving the way for a structure which could threaten our border," he said.

Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the Observatory, said the people who had fled into Turkey were escaping fighting and there was no systematic effort to force people out.

He said also said there were no Turkmen in the area: "There are violations by individuals from the YPG, but not in a systematic way."

Turkey has closed the border to vehicles and it has been months since it allowed anyone to cross from Tel Abyad into Turkey. However, Turkey still allows people with valid passports to cross into Syria.

The Turkish army blocked the roads leading to the Turkish side of the border, Turkey's CNN Turk television reported on Sunday, denying access to everyone including journalists for security reasons.

(Additional reporting by Seyhmus Cakan in Diyarbakir and Naline Malla in Beirut)

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