ISIL advances on key Syrian city despite regime air raids
BEIRUT / ŞANLIURFA
Residents gather at a site hit by what activists said was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Billion village in the Jabal al-Zawiya region, Idlib province May 30, 2015. Reuters PhotoThe extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group fought fierce battles June 5 with Syria’s armed forces in a bid to seize control of Hasaki, a key provincial capital in the country’s northeast as more refugees seek shelter in Turkey by the border. “Fierce clashes continued Friday [June 5] between regime forces and ISIL south of Hasaki city. The regime is violently and intensely bombarding jihadist positions from the air,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Britain-based monitor said the regime was using barrel bombs -- large containers packed with explosives -- against jihadists edging towards the city, which is divided between Kurdish and government control.
Since their offensive began on May 30, ISIL fighters have advanced to the southern outskirts of Hasakei using deadly suicide attacks and heavy mortar fire.
Citing a military source, Syria’s state news agency SANA said the army had used “aerial weapons... to destroy equipment belonging to the ISIL terrorists.”
The seven-day assault has killed at least 71 government loyalists and 59 extremists, including 11 who drove car bombs - ISIL’s signature weapon - towards regime positions, the Observatory said.
The jihadists, which have expanded their control in central and eastern Syria and in neighboring Iraq, seized a number of key posts, including a prison and power plant.
Hasaki has since been without power, local activist Arin Shekhmos told AFP.
Kurdish militia, locked in battles with ISIL in other parts of Haseki, have yet to take part in the clashes south of the city, AFP reported.
“For the moment, the Kurds are not taking part in the fight as the battles have not reached their area,” Abdel Rahman said.
Al-Watan, a Syrian daily close to the government, has criticised Kurdish militia for not coming to the army’s aid.
The loss of the city would follow a string of defeats in major cities for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including the ancient site of Palmyra last month and the northwest provincial capital of Idlib in March.
It would also be the second provincial capital to fall to ISIL after Raqa, which jihadists declared the capital of their self-styled “caliphate” last year.
More than 3,000 Syrians fleeing clashes between ISIL and Kurdish fighters have crossed into Turkey in two days, Reuters quoted a Turkish government official as saying on June 4.
Kurdish forces are trying to drive the militants out of Tel Abyad, in Syria’s Hassakah province, close to the Turkish border town of Akçakale.
The official said 3,337 Arab Syrians had crossed into Turkey in less than two days to avoid the clashes and bombing raids carried out against ISIL by a U.S.-led coalition.
The Syrians were being given biometric registration and health checks at Akçakale border crossing, the official added.
Turkey has already accepted 1.8 million people fleeing the bloodshed in neighboring Syria, officially maintaining an open-border policy for refugees throughout the four-year-old civil war.
In recent months it has partly closed border gates on security grounds, however, prompting aid workers to raise concerns it is blocking people from escaping the fighting.
One aid worker said thousands of people seeking refuge in the last week had been turned back by Turkish border guards, many then heading for different destinations inside Syria.
“The impression we get is that Ankara is being extra careful,” the worker said. “They don’t want an influx of refugees just before an election.”
Campaigning climaxes this week ahead of parliamentary polls on June 7, with the economic strain of housing refugees a sensitive issue.