Syria Kurdish forces cut vital supply road to IS-held Raqa
BEIRUT/AKCAKALE (Turkey) - Syrian Kurdish forces on Monday cut a vital supply road linking the flashpoint border town of Tal Abyad to the Islamic State group's bastion of Raqa, a Kurdish commander said.
"The Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) have cut the route" leading south out of Tal Abyad, which lies on the Syrian-Turkish border, said Kurdish commander Hussein Khojer.
"Tal Abyad is completely surrounded," Khojer said, speaking by phone from near the town.
"There is nowhere Daesh can escape to," he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
Khojer said Kurdish fighters, backed by Syrian rebel groups, had advanced on the strategic town in a two-front offensive from east and west.
"The YPG units from Kobane (in the west) and Jazira (in the east) met up south of Tal Abyad," Khojer added.
Sherfan Darwish, a spokesman for the Burkan al-Furat rebel group fighting alongside the YPG, said the anti-IS alliance had advanced to the "outer neighbourhoods" of the town's east and south.
"There are intense clashes there with Daesh," Darwish said, saying at least 19 IS jihadists were killed Monday.
He confirmed that Kurdish forces and their rebel allies had cut the road south of Tal Abyad, adding that most of the border town's civilian residents had already fled the intensifying violence.
Khojer said Kurdish forces were being backed by US-led coalition air raids.
The Kurdish units were sending reinforcements to the area south of Tel Abyad from both its stronghold in Hasaka province in the northeastern border area and from Kobani, northwest of Tel Abyad.
The loss of Tel Abyad would leave the hardline jihadists with only Jarablus border crossing along the Turkish border in their hands.
Tel Abyad has been a main conduit for weapons and smuggling of oil by the militants with Turkey.
Fighting near the border has already forced more than 18,000 people to cross into Turkey from Syria, aid workers say. A further 5,000 are believed to have crossed on Monday, according to a photographer at the scene.
Soldiers directed the people, many of whom were elderly, women and children, through a passage in a barbed wire fence to a border facility.
A Turkish official and humanitarian worker had said US-led air strikes were partly to blame for the recent displacement of mainly Arabs inhabiting the border area. The U.S. Embassy in Ankara defended its strategy from accusations that it was hurting civilian, saying they were only targetting the militants and their activities.
Turkey is already hosting 1.8 million Syrians, more than any of Syria's other neighbours and one of the biggest refugee populations in a single country anywhere in the world.
The YPG has emerged as the main partner on the ground in Syria for the US-led alliance that has been bombing Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Its advance into Raqqa province follows a campaign that drove Islamic State from wide areas of neighbouring Hasaka province.
Veysel Ayhan, President of International Middle East Peace Research (IMPR), a think-tank which has an office of its humanitarian arm in Akcakale, said YPG along with Syrian opposition forces were very close to taking the town.
The coalition air strikes had prevented Islamic State from sending additional fighters from its Raqqa stronghold, he added.
For the YPG, seizing Tel Abyad would help them link up Kurdish-controlled areas in Hasaka province and Kobani.
The expansion of Kurdish influence in Syria near the border with Turkey is a concern for Ankara, which has long been worried about separatism among its own Kurdish population.