Kurds battle with IS as Turkey blocks refugees
Kurdish fighters advanced Saturday to the outskirts of a key Syrian border town held by the Islamic State group, as Turkish forces sought to prevent thousands fleeing the fighting from crossing the frontier.
Further west, an Islamist rebel alliance pushed IS extremists back from a strategic cross-border supply route.
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) edged closer on Saturday to Tal Abyad, a border town used by jihadists as a gateway from Turkey into IS’s bastion province of Raqa.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said YPG fighters, backed by Syrian rebels and airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition fighting IS, advanced to within just a few kilometers southeast of Tal Abyad.
“Kurdish forces are on the eastern outskirts of Tal Abyad, only five kilometers (three miles) from the town,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
Southwest of Tal Abyad, Kurdish militia seized another 20 villages as IS forces withdrew, Abdel Rahman said.
He told AFP there were only 150 IS jihadists holding Tal Abyad it- self, and that they, too, had threatened to withdraw if they did not receive reinforcements from Raqa.
“But the leadership in Raqa will not send them reinforcements, because the coalition airstrikes have been decimating IS,” Abdel Rahman said.
The YPG marched closer to the vital border crossing after routing the jihadists in Suluk, a town east of Tal Abyad.
Abdel Rahman said most IS fighters had withdrawn from Suluk on Saturday, but had boobytrapped homes and scattered mines throughout the streets.
He said fighting and airstrikes around Suluk had killed 16 IS jihadists and at least three civilians on Saturday.
Clashes were ongoing on either side of Tal Abyad, forcing residents to flee south to Raqa city, or north to the Turkish border, he told AFP.
Thousands of displaced Syrians amassed at the frontier, prompting Turkish security forces to use water cannons and fire warning shots to push them away, an AFP photographer said.
Officials said Turkey had taken in over 13,500 refugees escaping the fighting in recent days, but Turkish police and soldiers did not allow anyone through on Saturday.
By late evening many Syrians were preparing to spend the night by the border fence, the correspondent said, as the black flag of IS could still be seen flying over the town of Tal Abyad.
Turkey is a key backer of the political and military opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and already hosts more than 1.8 million Syrian refugees.
‘They will go to Raqa city’
Local Syrian activist Arin Shekhmos said Kurdish fighters and their rebel allies were fighting to clear the entire northern frontier area of jihadists.
Shekhmos, who travels to the battle’s front line daily with YPG units, described the terrain as “practically desert, with scattered villages,” and said Kurdish fighters were optimistic about their offensive.
“The Kurdish leadership hasn’t announced what their future offensives will be, but the Syrian groups fighting alongside them ... said that after they liberate Tal Abyad, they will go to Raqa city,” Shekhmos told AFP.
Backed by U.S.-led air raids, YPG units scored a landmark victory against IS in January in Kobane, a border town in Aleppo province.
Since then, Kurdish forces have been chipping away at jihadist territory on either side of Raqa — from Hasakeh province to the east, and Aleppo to the west.
Aleppo province is one of the most complicated battlefields in Syria’s multi-front war, with rebels, regime forces, jihadists, and Kurds carving out areas of control.
(Above) Islamic State members ask people to go back at the Turkish Akcakale crossing gate in Sanliurfa province on Saturday, June 13. (Right) Syrians fleeing fighting in the center of the Syrian town of Tal Abyad ask for water as they gather at a border crossing on the Syrian side of the border, as seen from Turkey at the Turkish crossing of Akcakale in the southeast Sanliurfa province, on Sunday, June 14.