понедельник, 22 сентября 2014 г.

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

BEIRUT — Turkish paramilitary forces locked down stretches of the Syrian border Monday after facing a flood of more than 130,000 Syrian refugees fleeing the latest advance by Islamic State militants.

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

Turkey has been overwhelmed by more than 1.5 million people seeking haven from the Syrian civil war, and officials fear another humanitarian crisis on Turkish territory. Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Numan Kurtulmus, said that at least 130,000 additional refugees have poured across the Syrian border in the past three days.

In Syria’s Kurdish region, the push by the Islamic State has exposed weaknesses in 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 conflict that began more than three years ago.
“The official borders with Turkey are closed by the Turkish authorities,” said Redur Xelil, a spokesman for 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.”

At one closed border crossing, marked by a barbed wire barrier, a line of Turkish paramilitary police stood guard, the Reuters news agency reported. Some refugees described Islamic State fighters conducting indiscriminate killings as they overran villages, the report said. The claims could not be independently verified.

NATO-member Turkey has periodically closed border crossings since the Islamic State militants began taking over Syrian Kurdish villages 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 swath of the Syrian-Turkish frontier — and another potential route for Islamic State recruits.
But Kurdish Syrian fighters claimed that they have halted — at least for the moment — the advance of the militants, who have taken more than 60 Kurdish Syrian villages in the past week. Kurdish spokesman Xelil said fighting still flared on three fronts.

Kurdish Syrian forces also worry that they could be outgunned. The Islamic State arsenal includes U.S.-made weapons looted from fleeing Iraqi national troops in June. Kurds, both in Syria and Iraq, have called for international support to defend the border area.

“An uncontrollable force at the other side of the border is attacking civilians,” said Kurtulmus, Turkey’s deputy prime minister. “The extent of the disaster is worse than a natural disaster.”

The Kurdish issue adds another level of political sensitivity for Turkey, which for decades had battled a separatist movement in its own large Kurdish-dominated region. Turkish leaders worry that the Islamic State threat could stir bids for greater unity and coordination by Kurds, whose heartland spreads across Turkey, Syria and Iran.

In recent years, as Assad battled to protect his regime in Damascus, the Syrian Kurds have increased their autonomy and — to some degree — have protected their enclave from the war. But now, large areas have been evacuated amid growing fears of 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 U.N. refugee agency’s representative in Turkey, Carol Batchelor, told Reuters.
The United Nations said its refugee assistance campaign is underfunded, and it has appealed to the international community for more money.

Turkey is home to more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Like most of Syria’s neighbors, Turkey is struggling with the humanitarian spillover from Syria’s civil war and now the Islamic State surge. 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 water cannons to disperse crowds on the border reportedly demonstrating in solidarity with the Kurdish Syrian militia battling the Islamic State fighters.

A day earlier, the Islamic State freed 46 Turks, including Turkey’s consul general in the Iraqi city of Mosul. But Turkey appears reluctant to engage in frontline battles against the militants.

While the United States and other allies insist that there are no plans to commit ground troops, some political and military figures have suggested that airstrikes alone may not be enough. Former British prime minister Tony Blair, writing on the Web site of his Faith Foundation, acknowledged that there is “no appetite” in the West to send ground forces, but it should not be ruled out “if it is absolutely necessary.”

Murphy reported from Washington. Suzan Haidamous in Beirut contributed to this report.

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