Thousands flee as Syria Kurds advance on IS-held town
Backed by Arab Syrian rebel factions and air strikes by the US-led coalition, Kurdish militia were on Sunday closing in on Tal Abyad, a town used by the Islamic State group as a gateway from Turkey into its bastion province of Raqqa.
Kurdish sources say the goal is to cut off a crucial supply line for the extremists, who have been accused of bringing in foreign fighters and supplies across the Turkish border.
Turkish troops prevented anyone from crossing, sporadically firing water cannons to ensure the Syrians stayed back from the fence.
The Syrians who had spent the night at the fence sleeping in the open could be heard asking in Arabic for help. Many held up empty bottles, pleading for water in scorching early summer temperatures.
The black flag of IS could still be seen flying over Tal Abyad. Late on Saturday, several figures, apparently IS fighters, dressed in battle clothing and carrying rifles had came up to the fence on the Syrian side of the border, as Turkish soldiers eyed them nervously.
Sounds of fighting could be heard from across the border and at around 1000 GMT a loud explosion sent a huge plume of white smoke rising several kilometres (miles) to the east of Tal Abyad.
Many from the area's mixed population of Arabs and Kurds were fleeing in anticipation of a major battle, and thousands were gathered behind barbed wire fences around the Turkish border crossing of Akcakale, an AFP photographer reported.
Redur Xelil, spokesman for the Kurdish YPG milita said that hsi group and smaller Syrian Arab rebel forces fighting alongside it had begun the move towards Tel Abyad after encircling the Islamic State-held town of Suluk 20 km (12 miles) to the southeast.
|YPG fighters are now half-way between Suluk and Tel Abyad|
The advance raises the prospect of a battle at the Turkish border between the well-organized YPG militia and Islamic State.
Tel Abyad is important to Islamic State as the nearest border town to its de facto capital of Raqqa city.
Fighting near the border has already forced more than 13,000 people to cross into Turkey from Syria. Some 1,500 more are waiting to cross. Turkish soldiers sprayed water and fired into the air when some of them approached the border fence on Saturday, a security source said.
The YPG has made a determined push into Raqqa province from neighbouring Hasaka where, with the help of the US-led alliance, it has driven Islamic State from wide areas of territory since early May.
"The move towards Tel Abyad from the east began today after the completion of the Suluk blockade," Xelil said. "Many of the Daesh militants have fled (Suluk), apart from a group of suicide attackers inside the town and the booby traps, so we are very cautious about entering the town centre," he added via Skype.
Daesh is an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based organization that tracks the war, said the YPG fighters were now half-way between Suluk and Tel Abyad, situated across the border from the Turkish town of Akcakle.
For the YPG, seizing Tel Abyad would help them link up Kurdish-controlled areas in Hasaka province and Kobani.
The expansion of Kurdish influence in Syria near the border with Turkey is a concern for Ankara, which has long been worried about separatism among its own Kurdish population.
The Turkish authorities have closed Akcakale to vehicles and it has been months since they allowed anyone to cross from Tel Abyad into Turkey. However, Turkey still allows people with a valid passport to cross into Syria from Akcakle.
The Turkish military has also dug trenches in the border area.
With the help of US-led air strikes, the YPG fended off an Islamic State attack on the border town of Kobani, or Ain al-Arab, in January. Since then, the YPG has emerged as the most significant partner on the ground in Syria for the US-led alliance that is trying to roll back Islamic State.
Washington has ruled out the idea of partnering with President Bashar al-Assad, who last month lost the city of Palmyra in central Syria to Islamic State, the first time the jihadists seized a city directly from government control.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday accused the West of bombing Arabs and Turkmens in Syria while supporting Kurdish "terrorist" groups he said were filling the void left behind.
Xelil said: "The help of the alliance forces has been very effective and accurate in its target selection."
The YPG is affiliated to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has fought a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state. The PKK is considered a terrorist group by Ankara, the United States and European Union.
'They will go to Raqqa city'
Local Syrian activist Arin Shekhmos said Kurdish fighters and their rebel allies were fighting to clear the entire northern frontier area of militants.
Shekhmos, who travels to the battle's front line daily with YPG units, described the terrain as "practically desert, with scattered villages," and said Kurdish fighters were optimistic about their offensive.
"The Kurdish leadership hasn't announced what their future offensives will be, but the Syrian groups fighting alongside them... said that after they liberate Tal Abyad, they will go to Raqqa city," Shekhmos told AFP.
Aleppo province is one of the most complicated battlefields in Syria's multi-front war, with rebels, regime forces, militants, and Kurds carving out areas of control.
Late Friday, a Syrian Islamist alliance pushed IS fighters further back from one if its key supply routes from Turkey into northern Aleppo.
The rebels ousted IS from the village of Al-Bal, leaving 14 rebels and 15 extremists dead, according to the Britain-based Observatory.
The militants had captured Al-Bal on Tuesday, bringing them to within 10 km of the strategic Bab al-Salama border crossing.
Further south, the rebels were fighting to defend the town of Marea, on the road linking the crossing and the rebel-held eastern sector of Aleppo city.
Activists said the rebels were simultaneously launching their own attacks on IS positions in the area.