Christians flee jihadis after Syria abductions

BEIRUT: Hundreds of Assyrian families have fled their homes in northeastern Syria after a mass kidnapping of their community by ISIS, activists said Wednesday.

Some 1,000 families have fled their villages in Hassakeh since Monday’s abductions, said Osama Edward, director of the Sweden-based Assyrian Human Rights Network.

About 800 of them have taken refuge in the city of Hassakeh and 150 in Qamishli, a Kurdish-majority city on the Turkish border, Edward said, adding that the number of displaced people came to about 5,000.

Most of the hostages were women, children or elderly. State-run SANA news agency and the Assyrian Human Rights Network said they had been taken to the ISIS stronghold of Shaddadi, in Hassakeh province.

The U.S.-led coalition conducting a campaign of airstrikes against ISIS has targeted Shaddadi, a Arab-majority town, on several occasions.

Edward said he believed the abduction was linked to the jihadis’ recent loss of ground in the face of U.S.-led air raids against ISIS.

“They took the hostages to use them as human shields,” he told AFP.

The jihadis, who are battling Kurdish fighters on the ground, may try to exchange the Assyrians for ISIS prisoners, said Edward.

Their aim was to take the Assyrian village of Tal Tamer, near a bridge that links Syria to Iraq, he said.

According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Kurdish fighters recaptured three Assyrian villages and a nearby Arab village Wednesday.

“The [Kurdish] People’s Protection Units (YPG) have reclaimed Tal Shamiran, Tal Masri, Tal Hermel and Ghbeish,” Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said. But fighting continues in the area, he added.

In Tal Shamiran, the jihadis burned down part of a church, and in the Arab village of Ghbeish, ISIS militants decapitated four men and burned down houses and a school. They accused the villagers of collaborating with the Kurdish fighters.

The jihadis had been intimidating the villagers for weeks, Edward said, including threatening to remove crosses from their churches.

“People were expecting an attack, but they thought that either the Syrian army, which is just 30 kilometers from there, or the Kurds or the [U.S.-led] coalition’s strikes would protect them,” Edward added.

The United States condemned the abductions.

“ISIL’s latest targeting of a religious minority is only further testament to its brutal and inhumane treatment of all those who disagree with its divisive goals and toxic beliefs,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, using another acronym for ISIS.

The Syrian Catholic archbishop of Hassakeh-Nisibi accused Turkey of allowing jihadis responsible for the persecution of Syrian Christians to cross its border unchecked, while preventing Christians from fleeing.

“In the north, Turkey allows through lorries, ISIS fighters, oil stolen from Syria, wheat and cotton: all of these can cross the border but nobody [from the Christian community] can pass over,” Jacques Behnan Hindo said.

Also, the nationality of the first Western fighter killed while fighting alongside the Kurds against ISIS was identified as Australian, the Observatory’s Abdel-Rahman said.

Separately, French warplanes from an aircraft carrier in the Gulf carried out their first strikes against ISIS since the warship joined the fight against jihadis in Iraq this week.

“We hit a training base for Daesh in the west of Iraq,” said Marc Gander, communications adviser to Vice-Adm. Eric Chaperon, commander of the warship’s battle group, using an Arabic acronym to refer to ISIS. The target was “close to the borders with Syria, at [Al-Qaim],” Gander added.

One of the four Rafale fighter jets that took off Wednesday morning returned having released all four of its guided missiles while another dropped two, an AFP photographer said.