Massive flow of refugees enters Turkey to escape ISIS advance in Syria
(CNN) — The flow of refugees fleeing Syria into Turkey has reached an unprecedented level in the past two days, a U.N. official said Sunday.
“I don’t think in the last three and a half years we have seen 100,000 people cross in two days,” said Carol Batchelor, a representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Turkey.
Humanitarian officials counted “well over 70,000” crossing the Syria-Turkey border starting Friday and into Saturday, with more coming, Batchelor said. “Not everyone has been registered. It may even be over 100,000 people.”
The number of Syrian refugees now in Turkey is approaching 1.6 million “and quite frankly, we don’t know when those numbers will end,” she said.
Turkey opened eight checkpoints along its border, allowing refugees trapped between the fighting and the border to enter its southeastern Sanliurfa province on Friday.
As refugees move into Turkey, hundreds of Kurdish fighters from Turkey have arrived in the Syrian Kurdish town of Ayn al-Arab to join a Kurdish militia group battling to hold off advancing ISIS forces, activists said Saturday. The town, known to Kurds as Kobani, is surrounded by ISIS, which refers to itself as the Islamic State, on three fronts and the Turkish border to the north.
The Kurdish militia, called the People’s Protection Unit, is battling with the ISIS fighters in the area, according the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The latest ISIS advance in Syria has brought a swath of the country’s north-central Kurdish region under siege. Some 60 villages fell under ISIS control in recent days, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. ISIS took 39 villages on Friday alone as Kurdish forces withdrew from their positions, it said.
“The conversation is no longer about withdrawing from this village or taking control of that place. For the People’s Protection Unit, it is about resisting the attack by ISIS and defending 50,000 Kurds from a massacre,” Mostafa Baly, a Kurdish activist inside Ayn al-Arab, told CNN on Saturday.
The influx of Kurdish fighters to the area increased tensions between the Kurdistan Workers Party and Turkish security forces, who used tear gas and water cannons against them in several clashes.
The release of 49 Turkish citizens taken hostage when ISIS took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in June has removed a barrier to Turkey joining the international call to form a coalition to fight ISIS, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday. He was quoted by his country’s semi-official news agency Anadolu.
The 49 hostages, including Turkish diplomats and their families, arrived on Turkish soil Saturday. Erdogan denied reports he made a financial deal with ISIS for their freedom, but conceded it was “a political, diplomatic bargain.”
CNN’s Salma Abdelaziz and Jennifer Deaton contributed to this report.
By Alan Duke