Fate of abducted Christians unclear; Syria clashes continue
BEIRUT (AP) Islamic State group militants have moved a large group of Christian hostages to a city they control in northeastern Syria, while they continue to battle Kurdish and Christian militiamen for control of a chain of villages along the Khabur River, activists and state-run media said Wednesday.
Hassakeh province which borders Turkey and Iraq has become the latest battleground for the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria. It is predominantly Kurdish but also has populations of Arabs and predominantly Christian Assyrians and Armenians.
In pre-dawn attacks, the group on Monday attacked communities nestled along the river, seizing at least 70 people, many of them women and children. Thousands of others fled to safer areas.
The fate of those kidnapped, almost all of them Assyrian Christians, remained unclear Wednesday, two days after they were seized.
However, the state-run SANA news agency and the Assyrian Network for Human Rights in Syria said the hostages have been moved to the Islamic State-controlled city of Shaddadeh, south of the city of Hassakeh. The United States and a coalition of regional partners are conducting a campaign of airstrikes against the group, and have on occasion struck Shaddadeh, a predominantly Arab town.
"In addition to its strategy of terrifying people, taking hostages to use as human shields to protect from coalition airstrikes is another of their goals," said Osama Edward, director of the Stockholm-based Assyrian Network for Human Rights in Syria.
The mass abduction added to fears among religious minorities in both Syria and Iraq, who have been repeatedly targeted by the Islamic State group. During the group's bloody campaign in both countries, where it has declared a self-styled caliphate, minorities have been repeatedly targeted and killed, driven from their homes, had their women enslaved and places of worship destroyed.
The Assyrians are indigenous Christian people who trace their roots back to the ancient Mesopotamians.
"We are watching a living history and all that comprises (it) disappear," wrote Mardean Isaac of A Demand for Action, an activist group that focuses on religious minorities in the Middle East.
He called for further airstrikes to assist those Assyrian and Kurdish forces fighting the militants in Syria. The United States and coalition of regional partners are conducting a campaign of airstrikes against the group.
In its first comments on the subject, SANA said around 90 civilians had been kidnapped by the extremists. It said that the militants burned people's homes and stole their properties, adding that those kidnapped were taken to Shaddadeh.
It quoted the patriarch of the Greek Catholic church, Gregory III Laham, as saying that in addition to the abductions, the militants destroyed the historic church in Tal Hurmiz, one of the oldest in Syria.
"Does the world need additional proof to stand united effectively against this epidemic and this criminal, inhuman group?" he asked.
Edward, who said his organization relied on observers on the ground in Syria, said two historic churches have been burned by the militants, one in Tal Hurmiz and the other in Qaber Shamiyeh.
Yunan Ruel Odishu, a priest from Tal Hurmiz currently in Dohuk, Iraq, said the Islamic State group issued a statement last month warning them to remove the cross from the village church, but the priest there didn't respond.
"In the last few days, they attacked all the villages. We think as a response to that," he said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a Christian group called the Syriac Military Council said heavy clashes against militants in the area were continuing. The group, which is fighting alongside Kurds and Arab militiamen, said three of its fighters were killed in Tal Hurmiz Tuesday.
"The Syriac Military Council and the Khabur Guards are determined to fight back ISIS, to regain the Assyrian villages and to release the Assyrian Christian hostages from ISIS," it said in a statement, using an alternate acronym for the Islamic State group.
The Islamic State group has a history of killing captives, including foreign journalists, Syrian soldiers and Kurdish militiamen. Most recently, militants in Libya affiliated with the extremist group released a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians.
The extremists could also use the Assyrian captives to try to arrange a prisoner swap with the Kurdish militias it is battling in northeastern Syria.