BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – Kurdish militia pressed a big offensive against Islamic State in northeast Syria on Wednesday, cutting one of its supply lines from Iraq, as fears mounted for dozens of Christians abducted by the hardline group that recently beheaded 21 Egyptian Copts.
The Syriac National Council of Syria says Islamic State seized 150 Assyrian Christians from villages in Hasaka province in a mass abduction coinciding with the offensive in the same region by Kurdish forces backed by US-led air strikes.
Hundreds more Christians have fled to the two main cities in Hasaka province, according to the Syriac council and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is tracking the conflict.
Islamic State has killed members of religious minorities and Sunni Muslims who do not swear allegiance to its self-declared “caliphate”. The group last week released a video showing its members beheading 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya.
The abductions in Syria follow advances by Kurdish forces against Islamic State in areas of the northeast near the Iraqi border – an area of vital importance to the group as one of the bridges between land it controls in Iraq and Syria.
“They want to show themselves strong, playing on the religion string, at a time when they are being hit hard,” said Rami Abdulrahman, who runs the British-based Observatory, speaking by telephone.
The Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, backed by US-led air strikes, last month drove Islamic State from the Syrian town of Kobani, since when further signs of strain have been seen in the group’s ranks.
The Assyrian Christians were taken from villages near the town of Tel Tamr, some 20 km to the northwest of the city of Hasaka. There has been no word on their fate. There have been conflicting reports on where the Christians had been taken.
“These were peaceful villages that had nothing to do with the battles,” said Nasir Haj Mahmoud, a Kurdish official in the YPG militia in northeastern Syria, speaking by telephone from the city of Qamishli.