BEIRUT/AKCAKALE, Turkey (Reuters) - Syrian Kurdish fighters took up positions on the outskirts of the Islamic State stronghold of Tel Abyad on Monday and a Kurdish militia spokesman said they had surrounded the northern Syrian border town.
A Reuters photographer at the scene saw the Kurdish YPG militia fighters on the edge of Tel Abyad, as they pushed ahead with an offensive to seize strategic territory from the Islamic State jihadists with support from U.S.-led air strikes.
Earlier, YPG spokesman Redur Xelil said the Kurds seized control of the road linking Tel Abyad to the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, about 50 miles (80 km) to the south, cutting off a supply route which Islamic State had used to send reinforcements.
Tel Abyad, on the border with Turkey, has been a main conduit for the militants to smuggle weapons and oil. Its loss would leave the jihadists with only the Jarablus border crossing - about 60 miles (90 km) to the west - in their hands.
Kurdish units were sending extra forces to the area south of Tel Abyad from their stronghold in Hasaka province in the northeastern border area and from Kobani, northwest of Tel Abyad, Xelil said.
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 the Reuters 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, he said.
A Turkish official and humanitarian worker had said U.S.-led air strikes were partly to blame for the recent displacement of mainly Arab residents from the border area. The U.S. Embassy in Ankara defended its strategy from accusations that it was hurting civilians, saying they were only targeting the militants and their activities.
In a statement published on Sunday the YPG urged civilians not to leave Syria, saying it was guaranteeing “their security and all of their humanitarian needs”.
Turkey is already hosting 1.8 million Syrians, more than any of Syria’s other neighbors and one of the biggest refugee populations in a single country anywhere in the world.
The refugees have been fleeing more than four years of civil war which grew out of a March 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad which was put down with force.
The YPG has emerged as the main partner on the ground in Syria for the U.S.-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 neighboring 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.
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.
Additional reporting by Dasha Afanasieva in Istanbul; Editing by Dominic Evans