More Syr­i­ans flee fight­ing in bor­der town

Ex­o­dus into Tur­key con­tin­ues. Kur­dish fight­ers say they are clos­ing in on mil­i­tants.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Glen John­son

GAZIANTEP, Tur­key — Kur­dish fight­ers claimed to be clos­ing in on Is­lamic State ex­trem­ists holed up Mon­day in a strate­gic Syr­ian fron­tier town as Tur­key was hit with a new in­flux of ter­ri­fied civil­ians f lee­ing the fight­ing.

The de­vel­op­ments came one day af­ter thou­sands of des­per­ate refugees cut a bor­der fence and f looded through.

Video posted on so­cial media by a pro-Kur­dish group ap­peared to show col­umns of Kur­dish fight­ers march­ing on the eastern fringes of the bor­der town, Tal Abyad, and snipers dug in be­hind trenches fir­ing on Is­lamic State po­si­tions. Kur­dish com­man­ders said they had seized a key road that would have al­lowed Is­lamic State mil­i­tants to rush re­in­force­ments from Raqqah, their de facto cap­i­tal in Syria.

“Our forces are try­ing to break Is­lamic State de­fen­sive lines” us­ing ar­tillery, heavy ma­chine guns and sniper fire, said Sher­van Der­wish, spokesman for the Euphrates Vol­cano coali­tion of Kur­dish fight­ers and al­lied Syr­ian rebel groups.

Is­lamic State fight­ers re­sponded with at least one sui­cide car bomb, while the Kurds clos­ing in on the town from the west sought to clear a large num­ber of land mines left by the re­treat­ing ex­trem­ists, said Der­wish, reached by cell­phone just south of Tal Abyad.

Since early May, a coali­tion of the Kur­dish fight­ers, known as the Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units, and Free Syr­ian Army units op­er­at­ing un­der the Euphrates Vol­cano um­brella group has bat­tled Is­lamic State ex­trem­ists in the re­gion, driv- ing them from hun­dreds of vil­lages. The sweep — an ad­vance on Tal Abyad from east and west — has given the Kurds con­trol over a large ex­panse of ter­ri­tory along the 550-mile Turk­ish-Syr­ian bor­der.

Tal Abyad, 50 miles north of Raqqah, is a key Is­lamic State re­sup­ply and oil-smug­gling hub. Ex­trem­ists took con­trol of the town about 17 months ago dur­ing a round of in­ternecine fight­ing among rebel groups.

The re­cent bat­tles have trig­gered fur­ther mass dis­place­ment in Syria, with Turk­ish of­fi­cials es­ti­mat­ing that about 16,500 refugees have ar­rived over the last two weeks. Turk­ish author­i­ties on Mon­day granted per­mis­sion for 400 more peo­ple to en­ter, lo­cal media re­ported. A Reuters pho­tog­ra­pher at the bor­der es­ti­mated that an ad­di­tional 5,000 peo­ple man­aged to make their way into Tur­key a day af­ter a chaotic bor­der scrum saw thou­sands of refugees cross into the fron­tier town of Ak­cakale.

Tur­key is strug­gling to cope with the in­flux of an es­ti­mated 2 mil­lion Syr­ian refugees that is cost­ing bil­lions of dol­lars, and rou­tinely ap­peals for greater sup­port from Western coun­tries. Turk­ish media on Mon­day quoted Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Nu­man Kur­tul­mus as say­ing the new wave could bring an ad­di­tional 100,000 peo­ple.

The U.S.-led coali­tion has pro­vided air sup­port for the Kur­dish ad­vance, re­peat­edly strik­ing Is­lamic State po­si­tions and tac­ti­cal units.

Turk­ish of­fi­cials sug­gested the airstrikes had trig­gered the mass dis­place­ment, but the U.S. Em­bassy in Ankara de­fended the Amer­i­can strat­egy, say­ing mil­i­tant po­si­tions and not civil­ians were be­ing tar­geted. John­son is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent. Times staff writer Laura King in Is­tan­bul, Tur­key, con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Bu­lent Kilic AFP/Getty Im­ages

REFUGEES f lee­ing the war in Syria ap­proach the cross­ing into the Turk­ish bor­der town of Ak­cakale.

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