September 22, 2014 / 1:13 PM / 3 years ago

Turkey struggles with spillover as Syrian Kurds battle Islamic State

Turkish soldiers stand guard on the Turkish-Syrian border line near the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, September 21, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

MURSITPINAR Turkey (Reuters) - Syrian Kurds battled to defend a key border town from an Islamic State advance on Monday as Kurdish youths from neighboring Turkey rushed to their aid, heightening the pressure on Ankara to act against the Islamist insurgents.

In Turkey, struggling to manage an influx of more than 130,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees since last week, security forces fired tear gas and water cannon at Kurdish protesters who accuse Ankara of favoring Islamic State against the Kurds.

The main Kurdish armed group in northern Syria, the YPG, said its fighters had halted the Islamic State advance east of the predominantly Kurdish town of Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, which sits on the Turkish border.

From a hillside across the border in Turkey, plumes of smoke could be seen and the booms of artillery and rattle of machinegun fire heard from a cluster of three settlements called Siftek, where Kurdish fighters fought Islamic State militants.

Hundreds of Turkish Kurds watched the fighting, cheering when fire struck Islamic State fighters’ positions.

“Kurds have never lost a war and we will not lose this one either,” said Zilan, a 40-year old mother of seven from the main southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir who said she had relatives fighting in the YPG ranks.

Hundreds of Kurdish youths gathered at Mursitpinar, the border crossing opposite Kobani, responding to calls from Kurdish leaders to join the struggle against Islamic State fighters who have seized swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Residents fleeing Kobani said the militants were executing people of all ages in villages they seized. Kurds are mostly Sunni Muslims but Islamic State views them as apostates because of their secular ideology. It has persecuted and killed Shi‘ite Muslims, Christians and members of the ancient Yazidi sect as well as moderate Sunnis who reject its stark version of Islam.

Turkish security forces are now trying to keep Kurds from crossing the frontier to aid their brethren. At Mursitpinar, a line of paramilitary police guarded a barbed-wire border fence.

“We all want to cross the border. We tried yesterday but they attacked us, and we will try again today,” said balaclava-clad Kurdish activist Shirwan, 28, holding a large flag of the PKK, Turkey’s own Kurdish party which waged a decades-long armed struggle for more rights.

Ismet, 19, a local man who makes a living collecting strawberries in the Mediterranean coastal province of Mersin, said the protesters had gathered from cities across Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast: “They are not from around here. They come from Sirnak, Van, Mardin, Nusaybin.”

He said several hundred Turkish Kurds had already crossed to join the fight. Other residents put the figure higher.

“HEROIC RESISTANCE”

The advances by the Sunni insurgents just across Turkey’s southern border have alarmed Ankara. But so far Turkey has been slow to join calls for a coalition to fight Islamic State, worried in part about links between Syrian Kurds and the PKK.

Turkey strongly denies it has given any form of support to the Islamist militants, but Western countries say its open borders during Syria’s three-year civil war allowed Islamic State and other radical groups to grow in power.

The PKK called Turkey’s Kurds to arms on Sunday, saying “supporting this heroic resistance” in Kobani was a “debt of honor”. Radio stations played patriotic Kurdish songs about heroic fighters and martyrs and one played recordings of PKK commander Murat Karayilan in a bid to drum up support.

Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said more than 130,000 Syrian Kurds had fled to Turkey since Friday and that the authorities were preparing for many more to arrive.

At a border crossing just west of Mursitpinar, hundreds of people waited on the Syrian side of the barbed wire fence among abandoned trucks and farm equipment they had used to carry their families, and their livestock, to safety.

“There are clashes beyond that hill,” said Muslim Bekir, a farmer who had managed to cross the border, pointing to a plume of smoke rising from behind a hill on the Syrian side, and explaining he had slept in fields after fleeing four days ago.

Redur Xelil, spokesman for the YPG, said via Skype that the Islamic State advance had been halted to the east of Kobani, scene of the fiercest fighting since the insurgents launched their offensive last Tuesday.

He said hundreds of Turkish Kurds were already helping in the fight. A previous attack on Kobani, in July, was fought off with the help of Kurds who crossed the border from Turkey.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks violence in the Syrian war, said fierce clashes were continuing between the YPG, supported by other groups, and Islamic State fighters in the southern and eastern outskirts of Kobani.

PRISONER SWAP?

The United States has carried out air strikes on Islamic State fighters in Iraq and says it is prepared to extend them into Syria, but has not said when or where strikes would begin.

Turkey, a NATO member with a big U.S. air base in the southern town of Incirlik, has so far made clear it does not want to take a frontline military role. Initially, officials said they were wary of fighting Islamic State because the group was holding 46 Turkish hostages and three of their local staff.

Those hostages - including diplomats, soldiers and children - were freed on Saturday, but Turkish officials said policy toward Islamic State was unlikely to change.

“The hostages weren’t the only concern for our Iraq and Syria policy,” said one senior Turkish official, declining to be identified so as to speak more freely.

“There are security problems especially in the Kurdish regions of Syria. We are always ready to help them but that doesn’t mean that we will carry out a military operation ... Turkey will continue to be a part of the coalition but our policies on Iraq and Syria will not change,” he said.

The release of the hostages fueled suspicion among Kurdish activists that Turkey was taking actions that helped Islamic State. Erdogan said on Sunday no ransom was paid but did not rebuff suggestions of a prisoner swap.

“Say such a swap has taken place, as a president, I would just look at the fact that our 49 citizens are (back) in Turkey,” Erdogan said. “Nothing compares to this.”

Ankara launched a peace process in 2012 to end a 30-year-old conflict with the PKK, listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union and the United States. Mutual suspicion still runs high between Kurdish communities and the security forces in large parts of the southeast.

In Iraq, where there is an autonomous Kurdish region with its own official security forces, European countries including Germany, France and Italy have already agreed to send the Kurds arms. But in Syria, where Kurdish fighters have no official status and their leaders are more closely linked to the banned PKK, outside help is more complicated.

Opposition politicians in Germany have called for the PKK to be taken off the EU list of terrorist groups. Turkey remains strongly opposed to such a move and diplomats say it would not be considered without Turkish accord.

“The threat to the Yazidis and Christians in northern Iraq is no reason, in my view, to reconsider the ban,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told broadcaster ARD on Sunday.

“The ban stands. We are delivering weapons to (Iraqi) Kurdish security forces; that is what we decided.”

Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Alexandra Hudson in Berlin and Orhan Coskun in Ankara; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Peter Graff

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