Flow of refugees to Tur­key slows as mil­i­tants routed

Kurds score a ma­jor vic­tory in driv­ing out Is­lamic State from a Syr­ian bor­der town.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Laura King laura.king@latimes.com

AK­CAKALE, Tur­key — Kur­dish fight­ers and al­lied Syr­ian rebels on Tues­day con­sol­i­dated their con­trol of a strate­gic Syr­ian bor­der town whose cap­ture dealt Is­lamic State mil­i­tants a ma­jor blow by cut­ting a key sup­ply route.

The fight for Tal Abyad, just south of the Turk­ish bor­der, set off a chaotic refugee ex­o­dus last week, but that del­uge slowed to a trickle Tues­day. At mid­day, of­fi­cials at the ad­ja­cent Turk­ish bor­der cross­ing said new ar­rivals num­bered in the scores rather than the thou­sands who broke through a bor­der fence close to the cross­ing on Sun­day.

Un­der a blaz­ing sun, strag­glers could be seen limp­ing along a fenced pas­sage­way and pre­sent­ing them­selves to Turk­ish author­i­ties at the bor­der sta­tion in Ak­cakale, the Turk­ish town just across the fron­tier from Tal Abyad. Many were el­derly, car­ry­ing pos­ses­sions in bun­dles atop their heads. Lit­tle boys led smaller ones by the hand.

Those flee­ing the fight­ing told of be­ing trapped be­tween bat­tle lines, ter­ri­fied by shelling. Some had been wait­ing for days on the Syr­ian side be­fore man­ag­ing to make their way across. One old woman, asked about the cross­ing, shook her head word­lessly, tears stream­ing down her face.

Tal Abyad, a town of about 80,000 peo­ple be­fore fight­ing be­gan in earnest this month, is a sig­nif­i­cant prize for Kur­dish-led forces, who have been backed by airstrikes car­ried out by the U.S.-led mil­i­tary coali­tion con­fronting Is­lamic State.

But the vic­tory by Kur­dish fight­ers and their al­lies has raised the hack­les of Tur­key, which is rat­tled by the grow­ing block of Kur­dish-held ter­ri­tory on its doorstep.

The fight­ing also ex­ac­er­bated eth­nic ten­sion among the town’s res­i­dents, who are di­vided about equally be- tween Arabs and Kurds.

Tur­key is al­ready home to nearly 2 mil­lion Syr­i­ans, and the latest inf lux trig­gered by the fight for Tal Abyad set off warn­ings that the refugee pop­u­la­tion was reach­ing lev­els that could not be sup­ported.

Af­ter clos­ing in from three sides, the Kur­dish Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units, or YPG, claimed late Mon­day to have gained con­trol over most of the town, which had been in Is­lamic State hands for more than a year.

Mon­i­tor­ing groups said that by dawn, the last of the Is­lamic State fight­ers ap­peared to have ei­ther crossed into Tur­key, where some were ar­rested, or made their way back to­ward Raqqah, the cap­i­tal of Is­lamic State’s self-de­clared caliphate en­com­pass­ing parts of Syria and Iraq.

On Tues­day, Kur­dish fight­ers cleared land mines and booby traps laid in build­ings and ve­hi­cles through­out the town by Is­lamic State de­fend­ers, ac­tivists re­ported, say­ing it could be weeks be­fore the town is fit for habi­ta­tion. Black flags bear­ing Is­lamic State’s white in­signia were re­placed by the YPG’s yel­low em­blems.

The Ak­cakale cross­ing had been a key smug­gling point for Is­lamic State, al­low­ing for the pas­sage of weapons and fight­ers to­ward Raqqah, 50 miles to the south, as well as ex­port of black-mar­ket oil ship­ments. But there are many other paths across the long bor­der, and Is­lamic State still con­trols the Syr­ian side of a cross­ing at Jarab­u­lus, in Aleppo province to the west.

The loss of Tal Abyad is an un­ac­cus­tomed set­back for Is­lamic State, whose fight­ers last month over­ran Ra­madi, the cap­i­tal of An­bar province in Iraq, and the an­cient ru­ins at Palmyra, in cen­tral Syria.

In towns and cities un­der the group’s sway, the mil­i­tants have slaugh­tered or sex­u­ally en­slaved mem­bers of re­li­gious and eth­nic mi­nori­ties. The group has also im­posed a harsh brand of Is­lam, de­mand­ing that women fully cover them­selves and leave home only in the com­pany of a male rel­a­tive.

Pho­tog raphs by Bu­lent Kilic AFP/Getty Im­ages

SYR­IAN CHIL­DREN wait af­ter en­ter­ing Tur­key at the Ak­cakale cross­ing. Some of the peo­ple who f led Tal Abyad, Syria, told of be­ing trapped amid the bat­tle be­tween Is­lamic State mil­i­tants and Kurds and their al­lies.

A KUR­DISH fighter un­furls the mili­tia’s f lag at the cross­ing, where a few refugees were still limp­ing in.

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