BEIRUT (AFP) – Islamic State group militants have abducted 220 Assyrian Christians in northeastern Syria in recent days, a monitoring group said Thursday, as international concern grows for the minority group.
The kidnappings – more than twice as many as previously reported – have prompted thousands more Christians to flee their homes to avoid being captured by the extremists, activists said.
“No fewer than 220 Assyrian citizens were abducted by IS over the past three days from 11 villages” in Hasakeh province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“Negotiations are under way through mediators from Arab tribes and a member of the Assyrian community to secure the release of the hostages,” the Britain-based monitoring group said.
The United States and United Nations denounced the mass abduction of Christians – the first of its kind in the war-torn country – and demanded their release.
“ISIL’s latest targeting of a religious minority is only further testament to its brutal and inhumane treatment of all those who disagree with its divisive goals and toxic beliefs,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, using another acronym for IS. Her comments were echoed by US National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan.
“The international community stands united and undeterred in its resolve to bring an end to ISIL’s depravity. The United States will continue to lead the fight to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL.”
The UN Security Council also condemned the abductions, demanding the hostages be immediately and unconditionally freed.
Osama Edward, director of the Assyrian Human Rights Network, told AFP on Wednesday he believed the abductions were linked to the militants’ recent loss of ground in the face of US-led air raids.
“They took the hostages to use them as human shields,” he said.
The militants, who are battling Kurdish fighters on the ground, may try to exchange the Assyrians for IS prisoners, he said.
Before Syria’s civil war erupted in 2011, there were 30,000 Assyrians in the country, among an estimated Christian population of about 1.2 million. The Assyrians, from one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, have faced an increasing threat since IS captured large parts of Syria.
In Libya, an IS branch last week released a video showing the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians, mostly Egyptians.
In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States and Iran had a “mutual interest” in defeating IS but said the long-time foes were not cooperating to do so.
“They are totally opposed to ISIL and they are in fact taking on and fighting and eliminating ISIL members along the Iraqi border near Iran and have serious concerns about what that would do to the region,” Kerry told lawmakers.