Kurdish fighters enter IS stronghold in northeastern Syria
BEIRUT (AP) Kurdish fighters, backed by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, fought their way Friday into a northeastern Syrian town that has been a key stronghold of the Islamic State group and planted their flag on the edge of the town, Syrian activists and Kurdish officials said.
The town of Tel Hamees is strategically important because it links territory controlled by the extremist group in Syria and Iraq. The region in Syria's Hassakeh province has become the latest battleground in the fight against the militants who this week captured around 220 Christians there.
The push on the town's eastern and southeastern edges came after the Kurdish troops, working with Christian militias and Arab tribal fighters, seized dozens of nearby villages from the Islamic State extremists.
Redur Xelil, a spokesman for the Kurdish fighters, known as the People's Protection Units or YPG, said Kurdish forces have liberated the entire town from IS control.
"We are now combing the town for explosives and remnants of terrorists," the spokesman told The Associated Press, speaking over the phone from the outskirts of Tel Hamees.
He said more than 200 militants had died in the fighting, and at least 8 troops fighting alongside YPG, including an Australian national who has been with the Kurdish forces for three months.
The claims could not be independently verified. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, said the Kurdish fighters broke into Tel Hamees from the east and south, but were not yet in full control of the town.
However, the Observatory's director, Rami Abdurrahman, said the Kurds have seized more than 100 villages around Tel Hamees and that ground battles and air strikes around the town have killed at least 175 IS fighters in the past several days.
The Kurdish fighters have been making territorial gains since capturing the Syrian border town of Kobani from the Islamic State group last month following a several-month struggle.
But elsewhere in the same province along the fluid and fast shifting front line IS fighters this week captured dozens of mostly Christian villages in Hassakeh to the west of Tel Hamees taking at least 220 Assyrian Christians hostage, according to activists.
Hassakeh province, which borders Turkey and Iraq, is predominantly Kurdish but also has populations of Arabs and predominantly Christian Assyrians and Armenians.
The Islamic State group still controls about a third of Iraq and Syria much of it captured in a lighting blitz last spring and summer, as Iraqi army forces melted away in the face of the militant onslaught. On Thursday, video emerged of IS militants smashing ancient Mesopotamian artifacts in a museum in Mosul, Iraq's second largest city.
Irina Bokova, the head of the U.N. cultural agency, UNESCO, denounced the group's destruction of ancient statues and artifacts as "cultural cleansing" and a war crime that the world must punish.
From Paris, where the agency is based, Bokova said she could not finish watching the Islamic State video posted Thursday that shows men using sledgehammers to smash Mesopotamian artworks in Iraq's northern city of Mosul. She called the video "a real shock."
The Louvre Museum in Paris said the destruction "marks a new stage in the violence and horror, because all of humanity's memory is being targeted in this region that was the cradle of civilization, the written word, and history."
French President Francois Hollande also condemned the "barbarity" of the destructions.
"What the terrorists want is to destroy all that makes humanity," he said Friday during a visit to the Philippines.
Elsewhere in Syria, at least eight civilians were killed in a car bomb that exploded outside the Bilal Mosque in the rebel-held town of Dumeir, east of Damascus. Many others were wounded in the blast, which occurred as worshippers were leaving the mosque following Friday prayers.
Another car bomb went off outside a mosque in Nasseriya, near Dumeir, also causing multiple casualties. It was not immediately clear who was behind the bombings.
Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.