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.

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