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Islamic State seizes Christians again – this time in northeastern Syria

Monitoring groups say militants have kidnapped at least 70 people from Assyrian Christian villages that border territory that IS controls in Iraq. Some speculate IS may be seeking a prisoner swap.

In this June 16, 2014, file photo, demonstrators chant pro-Islamic State group slogans as they wave the group's flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, Iraq. Islamic State militants have abducted at least 70 Assyrian Christians, including women and children, after overrunning a string of villages in northeastern Syria, two activist groups said Tuesday.

Islamic State fighters have reportedly abducted at least 70 people from Assyrian Christians villages in northeastern Syria, reigniting concerns about the plight of religious minorities in regions under threat of IS attacks.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the extremist fighters raided rural villages inhabited by the ancient Christian minority west of Hasaka, a city mainly held by the Kurds, around dawn on Monday.

The abductions come barely a week after militants affiliated with the Tripoli Province of Islamic State in Libya – a Libyan group that pledged allegiance to IS last year – released a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians. 

The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, said IS captured 90 Assyrians in the raids. A Demand For Action, a separate activist group that focuses on religious minorities in the Middle East, put the number between 70 and 100.

Both groups said that most of the captives come from the village of Tal Shamiram. The village is located along the banks of Khabur River about 50 miles southwest of the provincial capital of Qamishli.

It was not immediately clear what IS planned to do with the Assyrians. While execution is possible, the extremist group also could use its new captives to try to arrange a prisoner swap with the Kurdish and Christian militias that it has been fighting in the region.

The Associated Press reports that there is a precedent for such a deal: IS released Kurdish schoolchildren and Turkish truck drivers and diplomats after holding them for months.

The BBC reports that some Assyrians managed to escape and made their way east to Hassakeh.

Meanwhile, Syrian Kurdish militias have renewed their assault on the militants in northeastern Syria to try to recapture the town of Tal Hamis. They launched two offensives against them on Sunday, helped by US-led airstrikes and artillery support from Iraqi peshmerga. As Reuters reports:

This part of Syria is strategically important in the fight against Islamic State because it borders territory controlled by the group in Iraq, where last year the ultra-hardline group committed atrocities against the Yazidi community.

Tel Tamr, a town near the Assyrian Christian villages where the abductions occurred, has witnessed heavy clashes between Islamic State fighters and the Kurdish YPG militia, the Observatory said.

On Monday, a Kurdish official told the BBC that the Popular Protection Units (YPG) had forced IS militants back to within three miles of Tal Hamis. The Observatory confirmed the advance by the YPG and said at least 12 IS fighters had been killed.

The Observatory reports that US-led airstrikes against IS in Syria have killed more than 1,600 people, mostly jihadists, since they began five months ago. The US and a small number of Arab countries began targeting the extremist group in Syria last year, expanding operations with a broader coalition already under way in Iraq.

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