More Syrians flee fighting in border town
Exodus into Turkey continues. Kurdish fighters say they are closing in on militants.
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.
REFUGEES f leeing the war in Syria approach the crossing into the Turkish border town of Akcakale.