Kurds battle ISIS in Tal Abyad bid

AKCAKALE, Turkey: Kurdish forces advanced Sunday to the gates of a Syrian town and clashed with ISIS jihadis in an upsurge in violence that saw Turkey open its border to fleeing civilians.

Backed by Syrian rebel fighters and U.S.-led airstrikes, the Kurdish militia pressed its offensive on the town of Tal Abyad, a strategic supply route from Turkey to ISIS’ self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa.

Hussein Khojer, a commander with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), said fighting raged on the eastern edges of Tal Abyad, just 50 meters from the town itself.

“We are fighting for control of the first checkpoint,” Khojer said, adding that the advance came after three days’ of heavy clashes.

He said ISIS had tried to block the advance by blowing up two bridges.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Kurdish fighters “just waded across” and had reached the town’s southeastern outskirts but had yet to enter.

Kurdish sources say the goal is to sever a crucial supply line for the jihadis, who have been accused of bringing in foreign fighters and supplies across the Turkish border.

Fearing a major battle, Arab and Kurdish civilians fled for the border fence with Turkey, where thousands had been clustered behind barbed wire at the Akcakale crossing.

Turkey later began accepting the refugees onto its territory.

It came after two days of them being trapped between the jihadis on the Syrian side of the border and Turkish troops on the other who fired water cannon and even pepper spray to keep them at bay.

“Tal Abyad is almost completely surrounded,” said Arin Shekhmos, a Kurdish activist.

The town lies on a mostly Sunni Arab part of the border between the mainly Kurdish town of Ain al-Arab and Syria’s most populous ethnic Kurdish region – Hassakeh province – in the northeast. Since January, when YPG fighters and U.S. airstrikes forced ISIS out of Ain al-Arab, Kurdish forces have been chipping away at jihadi territory on either side of Raqqa – from Hassakeh to the east and Aleppo to the west.

The coalition said Saturday it had struck three ISIS tactical units near Ain al-Arab and had destroyed one of the group’s fighting positions.To the west in Aleppo province, coalition raids killed at least 12 ISIS fighters as they fought a rebel alliance for control of another supply route from Turkey, Abdel-Rahman said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he was troubled by the Kurdish advance in northern Syria. Erdogan also claimed that ethnic Arabs and Syrian Turkmen were being targeted in the advance. He said the places they had vacated were being occupied by the Syrian Kurdish group the Democratic Union Party, and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party which fought a deadly decades-long insurgency for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey’s southeast.

“This could lead to the creation of a structure that threatens our borders,” he said. “Everyone needs to take into account our sensitivities on this issue.”

The Kurds rejected the accusations while the Observatory reported only “isolated cases during which some Arab homes were torched.”