Monday, September 22, 2014

WORLD_ Turkey locks down border after refugee surge from Syria fleeing Islamic State


Turkey locks down border after refugee surge from Syria fleeing Islamic State

By Rebecca Collard
September 22 at 7:44 AM

BEIRUT - Turkey tried to lock down stretches of its border with Syria on Monday after facing a flood of more than 100,000 Syrian refugees fleeing the latest advance by Islamic State militants.

The move by Turkey reflects desperation on both sides of the border.

Turkey has been struggling with more than 1.5 million seeking haven from the Syrian civil war and officials fear another humanitarian crisis on its territory. In Syria’s Kurdish region, the push by the Islamic State has exposed weaknesses in the Kurdish defenses and could leave civilians nowhere to run if the border remains sealed.

U.S.-led forces have stepped up air attacks on Islamic State targets in Iraq, but are deeply divided over whether to expand the offensive to Syria — where President Bashar al-Assad is battling rebels in a separate showdown that began more than three years ago.

“The official borders with Turkey are closed by the Turkish authorities,” said Redur Xelil, the spokesperson of the People’s Protection Units, one of the Kurdish groups fighting the Islamic State. “However, the refugees are crossing through wire fences in some areas.”

Turkey has periodically closed border crossings since the Islamic State militants began taking over Syrian Kurdish villages on Sept. 16 as they move toward the strategic border town of Ayn al-Arab, or Kobane in Kurdish. Taking Kobane would give the Islamic State control of a large stretch of the Syrian-Turkish frontier — and another potential route for Islamic State recruits.

But Kurdish Syrian fighters said that they have halted the advance of the militants, who have taken more than 60 Kurdish Syrian villages in the past week.

“The town of Mabrouka is now under our control,” said Xelil. “But there is fierce fighting on three fronts.”

Kurdish Syrian forces have been trying to repel the Islamic State fighters, but say their weapons are no match for the militant’s arsenal, looted from fleeing Iraqi national troops in June. Kurds, both in Syria and Iraq, have been calling on the international community for support to defend this border area against the militants.

In recent years, Assad battled to protect his regime in Damascus. The Syrian Kurds in the country’s north, meanwhile, have increased their autonomy and — to some degree — have protected their enclave from the war. But now, more than 100 villages have been evacuated fearing the Islamic State’s onslaught.

The U.N. refugee agency said Sunday that Turkey was preparing for the possibility of hundreds of thousands of new refugees.

“I don’t think in the last three and a half years we have seen 100,000 people crossing in two days and so this is a bit of a measure of how the situation is unfolding,” the UN refugee agency’s representative in Turkey, Carol Batchelor, told Reuters.

The United Nations said its refugee assistance campaign is underfunded and has appealed to the international community for more money.

Turkey is already home to more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees, and — like most of Syria’s neighbors — is becoming increasingly uneasy about hosting such a large number of the war’s displaced. More than 3 million Syrians have sought refuge in neighboring states including Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

On Sunday, Turkish border troops used tear gas and cannons to disperse crowds on the border reportedly demonstrating in solidarity with the Kurdish Syrian militia battling the Islamic State fighters.

Suzan Haidamous contributed to this report.

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